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Activism For Beginners

Millions of people took part in marches in cities across the country this weekend, their voices raised for equality, justice, and kindness. Among their number, and watching at home, were thousands of brand new activists just waking up to the reality we’re in and the power we hold to change it.

Whether you were able to attend or not, I hope that stories about the event have awakened the activist within you. Because this is only the beginning. This march was a message to those in power: we’re important, we’re many, we’re watching, and you’re not going to get away with evil. How do we take this spirit and push forward with it to create change? Because marching isn’t enough. We’ve got a long road ahead as this administration works to sell outright lies to us while dismantling our rights.

There are so many activists out there who know a lot more than me, and who are already writing better posts than this one about what to do next. I’m new to this myself, and have so very much to learn*. But I’m hoping that maybe hearing some of this from a friend might make it less intimidating.

Here are some steps that we all need to take in the next few weeks. And once we’ve stepped those steps, we need to step’ em again. And again and again. Then more steps, and bigger steps, until we see results. And then? Keep going.

Activism for Beginners: Baby Steps

Get Familiar With Your Bias and Privilege

We’re all biased. It’s the way the brain gets wired through years of experience with the world, cultural expectations, exchanges with others in the community and outside of it, and consumption of media in all its forms. Everyone, to some degree, holds preconceived notions in their heads about groups of people, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. You can test your implicit bias through Project Implicit, even though there’s a good chance you’ll be uncomfortable with the results. I know I was uncomfortable with mine. The important thing is what you choose to do with that discomfort. It’s easy to want to dismiss it, saying there’s no way it can be accurate, because you’re not racist or ableist. You’re a good person! Yes, you probably are. You probably try to do everything right and treat people fairly, but it’s important to know the ways in which your brain may be making decisions for you without you even being aware of them. Look at your results. Know where you may need to be exerting a little more conscious control over situations and choices. Just be more aware.

Once you’ve had some time to sit with your biases and pledge to work against them, look at your privilege. Privilege doesn’t mean you’re rich and happy and have never had it tough. It just means that there are some things that you have never had to experience, simply because of the different circumstances of your existence. Acknowledging that other people’s lives and experiences can be very different than yours is important: it’s a way to train yourself out of getting defensive when someone calls you out. The fact is, if you’re white, you’ve had it easier than every other group out there. You owe them the space to tell their stories, and you owe them some difficult homework in understanding and working towards equality.

Get Educated

Open up your eyes and mind to some new perspectives by following some activists on Twitter or Facebook, or subscribe to their blogs or the publications that they contribute to. This is the easiest possible doorway to activism. Just read. Read the words of Black women. Read the words of Indigenous women. Read the words of Trans folks. Read the words of disabled folks. Read as much as you can from people whose lives are different from yours, and who have more to lose in the upcoming political horror show. Listen, learn, and try hard to understand how your actions may need to change in order to stand behind these people in a meaningful way.

And I do mean listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t get defensive, don’t make the conversation about you, and don’t ask for citations to back up their words. If they bring up historical facts you don’t recognize, make a note to go home and put in the work researching and understanding where they’re coming from. If they make you feel uncomfortable, examine those feelings and try to get to the root of them so you can work on being a better and more empathetic person.

While you’re reading, why not support good journalism by subscribing or donating to sites that are doing a good job out there getting actual news to the people? Fight the clickbait economy and support them with your dollars. I’ve subscribed to Mother Jones, the Washington Post, and Teen Vogue (no, seriously), and I’ve donated to the Guardian. If we want good journalism, we need to make it possible for these places to pay good journalists.

Teen Vogue website

Yes, this is a screenshot of Teen Vogue’s site on Saturday.

Get Political

Yes, start calling your representatives in the federal government about all the things going on that you disagree with. Tell them how you’d prefer that they vote on matters that are important to you. Then, afterwards, call to either thank them for voting that way or tell them you’re disappointed that they didn’t. But this isn’t just about the federal government. There are state governments and local governments that speak for you, too. Do you know who represents you when everyone meets for votes in your state capital? Who is on your local board of education? Who’s your mayor? What do they stand for? What important matters are coming up for votes? These people all have offices and phones, and they need to hear your voice.

Do your research and figure out what’s going on closer to home, and then get involved in whatever ways you can, from letters to the editor to attending public meetings to running for office yourself, if you’re qualified (and brave).

Get Involved

What causes matter the most to you right now? How can you help them? Whether it’s time or money, see what you might be able to donate to organizations that are doing some of the hardest work in this fight. There are big ones, like ACLU Planned Parenthood, and Campaign Zero, but don’t forget to act locally, too. Food banks, domestic violence shelters, job centers, children’s groups: find them, and ask them how you can be involved.

Even everyday interactions can make a difference. With so much hate swirling around, and actual Nazis among those in charge of the country, plenty of people have reason to worry for their safety and well-being. Smile at the veiled woman on the bus. Tell the Hispanic barista you like her earrings. Tip the Black waitress a little extra. Speak up when you hear someone say something that is not okay. Fight the normalization of hate speech. Normalize kindness and tolerance. Model good behavior and hope others catch on.

Get Prioritized

Do you need more help prioritizing your energies while your outrage meter keeps overloading with every fresh news story? I’m right there with you. I highly recommend signing up for regular emails from Indivisible and re:act, which contain simple weekly action items, including telephone scripts you can use when calling your representatives. The group behind the Women’s March is rolling out an action plan. Many other national groups, like Planned Parenthood, Moms Demand Action, and the ACLU are also giving out useful information about ways to participate. Sign up for their mailing lists, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on what they need you to do.

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed. The list of horrible things we need to fight against keeps growing, and no one person can possibly manage to work against all of it, every day. Rage burnout is a real thing. But every little bit does help, and it’s okay to choose only a few points for your action list. I make a list every weekend, using the mailing lists above as a guide to urgent priorities like hearings or votes. I have a regular slot in my calendar for calling my elected officials over my lunch break.

Get Loud

There is power in numbers – just look at how many turned out for the marches this weekend, and how much it shook the administration. We need to keep people engaged and involved so that the movement continues. Share your hard work in ways that might inspire others, even if it’s just on Facebook where your conservative aunties might see it. See if a coworker wants to volunteer with you. Write letters to the editors in your local papers. Forward links to activist mailing lists to friends who may want to do more. If you’re more extroverted and feel up for it, maybe get a local discussion group together in your neighborhood so you can plan to act as a group and reach more people. Go to town hall meetings and ask your representative important questions, so their answers will be recorded by local journalists for all to see or read.

Beginner activism is still activism. It still counts and can make a difference. Don’t let your inexperience stop you from trying, failing, learning, and trying again. Listen when you’re given feedback from folks who have been fighting this fight longer than you. Share what you learn. Most of all, keep going. Even if we can create change, we need to sustain it, as this election has shown us all too well.

 

*I’m still learning, and I understand that I’m unlikely to get any of this completely right on the first try. Please, let me know if I’m missing important things here, and I’ll do my best to edit this post in response.




Swedish Chef Therapy

 

This is my second in what will surely be a useful series of fictional-character-based self-help exercises. I’ve already told you how Spock can help you with some aspects of depression and anxiety by calling out your irrational side. Today we’re going to look at anger, and how to deal with it simply and effectively using what I like to call Swedish Chef Therapy, or MBAST: Muppet-Based Anger-Suppression Technique.

swedish chef

Credit: Connor Luddy via Flickr CC by 2.0

You’re angry. Frustrated. Irrational. Maybe your undies are too tight, you skipped breakfast, and have to sit beside Loudy McShoutington and his political opinions in the lunch room. Whatever the reasons, you’re successfully coasting through a tough day with gritted teeth and positive self-talk until you open your lunch and realize the sandwich artist put the wrong dressing on your sub.

We need to defuse this bomb before you give Mr. McShoutington the gift of a sandwich hat and you find yourself escorted out of the building.

1. Find two things you can hold in your hands. No weapons! Small everyday objects that you have nearby. A stapler and a water bottle are good options if you’re in the office. Just look around and get creative. They need to be big and heavy enough to really feel them in your hands – a pen is too small.

2. Get in front of a mirror. Alone. Lock yourself in the bathroom. If you’re at work, check for feet under the stalls. You’re about to get very, very silly, and you may not want witnesses.

3. Look mirror-you in the eyes. This part is important.

4. Hop up and down, flail your objects around like your arms are jelly, and sing as loud as you’re comfortable with:

Yorn deshorn, der burr beedish-kadoo
Yee bursh dee hurnder, de boor

BORK BORK BORK

If you’re not laugh-crying at yourself at this point, you need to go watch an hour-long playlist of Swedish Chef videos as a part of your training. If you’re prone to angry outbursts on a regular basis, you may need to start with advanced Swedish Chef Therapy right away and keep one of these chef’s hats in your desk drawer for emergencies.

swedish chef

Credit: Brian M, via Flickr CC by 2.0




Cupid’s Undie Run – Freezing for a Cause

I don’t run. My attitude towards running is summed up by this Garfield cartoon:

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I also don’t love the cold, as anyone who’s ever been within whining distance of me in the winter will know all too well.

Despite these things, on Saturday, in sub-freezing temperatures, I will be running for charity at the Cupid’s Undie Run in Washington DC. Yes, “Undie Run” means that they encourage runners to brave the cold and run in Valentine’s-themed undies. It’s like a polar bear plunge, but without the frozen lake. Just the same questionable judgment and the same shivering bodies.

Capture

Why run in the cold and risk frostbite patches on my cellulite? Because it’s a challenge. Because I want to stretch myself. And because I’m selfish.

You see, the one-mile run is in support of the Children’s Tumor Foundation, which raises money to fund research into and awareness of Neurofibromatosis, a potentially serious and sometimes fatal genetic disorder that affects up to 1 in every 3000 births.

Liam, my wonderful and adorable toddler, is that one in three thousand.

liam uke

He was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (formerly called Von Recklinghausen’s disease) last summer, near his first birthday. He’s already had to go through sedation for three MRIs, and he’s on track for at least two more of those scans before his second birthday. He has tumors in his brain that need to be watched, because if they grow they could affect his eyesight… or worse. So far they’re stable and not causing any trouble, and we’re very, very grateful for that, but we’re doing scans every two months to be able to catch them right away if they change. Liam also gets regular physical therapy to help him catch up with the big physical milestones, because the low tone associated with NF1 means that his muscles have to put in more effort than the average kid to do the same work. He’s working very hard and he’s doing very well and we’re incredibly proud of him. He took his first independent steps just over a week ago, and we all cried a little.

He’s healthy and happy and just as nutty and exhausting as a normal toddler, and if you didn’t know about all this you likely wouldn’t even know there was anything going on under the surface. But this is a condition that will need monitoring for the rest of his life. And because the severity of NF1 varies so much from person to person, we don’t know what his future might hold. Raising money for this research is all I can do to try and improve the chances that even if the worst case scenarios come up, science will have a way to get him through them.

So I’m pulling on some bright underpants and running a mile in DC with a handful of wonderful friends, on a day the temperature won’t even break freezing. 

I’m not raising money for his big medical bills quite yet; so far it’s been expensive but manageable. But there are lots of kids out there who are living with NF1. Neurofibromatosis can cause nerve tumors in the brain or in the body, which can cause blindness or pain or other disability, and require surgery or chemotherapy. Those tumors often include small lumps called neurofibromas that can be seen on the skin, and those bumps can be off-putting to some, leaving people living with NF1 feeling isolated. Kids with NF1 are at greater risk than average for learning and processing disorders like ADHD and dyslexia.  The money I’m raising this week, by running in the cold in a goofy outfit, will help to fund research into these complications, maybe leading to better ways to prevent or manage them.

Please consider a donation to the Children’s Tumor foundation through the CTF website.

Learn more about NF, directly from the Children’s Tumor Foundation.

Wish me luck on Saturday. It’s going to be hell, but this little guy is worth it.

Update, February 2017: Thanks to everyone’s generous support, my team met its 2016 fundraising goal of $1500. I won’t be running this year, but I encourage everyone to toss a few dollars towards NF research, if they can spare it. 

Note: The link to the awesome heart-print boxers is an Amazon affiliate link. You can learn more about that here. 




Blizzard Preparation Tips From an Amateur Expert

Washington, DC - Snow Blizzard of 2010

Washington, DC – Snow Blizzard of 2010 (Photo credit Claude Cavender via FLickr under CC license)

With a huge blizzard bearing down on the mid-Atlantic region, people around here are in a bit of a panic. Store shelves are empty of essential French toast supplies, bottled water, and batteries, and lines at gas stations are stretching out into the street and blocking traffic. It’s not necessarily overkill, as much as I’d like to make fun of everyone – even the more conservative estimates are predicting that DC will be shivering under two feet of wet snow by Sunday morning.

There are hundreds of excellent emergency-preparedness articles online, published by people who know what they’re talking about. You can find storm and blizzard tips from the American Red Cross. Weather websites and networks. The federal government. You should read them and do whatever you can to get ready for extreme weather. Take this seriously.

But they’re not giving you the whole story. I’m from Montreal. I know blizzards, and I know a bunch of little tricks that will help you weather the storm a lot easier. Count on the pros for survival. I’ll help make your survival less miserable.

1. Bring your snow equipment inside

If the forecast calls for heavy winds along with several inches of snow, you’ll have snow drifts that can make it hard to get to the shed or wherever else your snow shovels and snow-melting salt are stored. Bringing it to the front porch isn’t enough – you need at least one shovel and some salt inside in case you’re faced with a wall of snow when you open the front door. This doesn’t apply to snowblowers unless you have an incredibly spacious foyer.

2. Get your scrapers and sweepers out of the car

Those scrapers and sweepers aren’t going to do you any good locked up in your trunk. Leaving them in your car in general is a good idea for when you’re out and about, but when you’re parking the car and getting ready to hunker down for the duration of the storm, bring the snow-removers into the house with you and leave them near the door. In a pinch, a kitchen broom works to sweep off a car, too, but if you’ve got a tool you like, why not have it ready to go?

3. Park the car close to the street

If you have a driveway and not a garage (or a garage too full of junk to get your car in there), park your car close to the street instead of close to the house. You’ll have to walk further to get to it, but you won’t need to clear out as much snow behind it to get it out into the street. Be careful not to be too close to the edge, because you don’t want a snowplow taking off your bumper. If you have to park in the street because you don’t have a driveway, my heart goes out to you. Best of luck defending your cleared spot from the vultures.




4. Get your grill ready

If the power goes out, you won’t have many options for cooking, so emergency planning dictates you stock up on protein bars and trail mix and other nutritious foods that don’t need heating. But if you have a grill out on the deck, you can heat up almost anything using a heavy pan (or one you don’t care about scorching). Pick up some propane before the storm, roll the grill a little closer to the door, and then once the winds die down you can wrap up in a parka and heat yourself up some water for cocoa. Don’t be a hero and go out during the blizzard, please!

5. Charge everything

Everything you can think of. Phones and tablets that can connect to the internet are obviously essential, but do you have laptops you can play movies or games on? Mp3 players you can load up with podcasts and music? Even old cell phones you never got around to recycling – if they still work, you can use them to play games and music, even if they’re not connected to any network. If your power goes out, you’re going to be bored and in the dark, so you may as well have as many toys as possible charged and ready to go.

6. Shower

Yeah, the water will probably still work if the power’s out, unless you’re on a well system with a pump, but who wants to shower in cold water when the heat isn’t working? Take advantage of the calm before the storm and hop into a hot shower.

7. Run the dishwasher and do the laundry

You might not get a chance to wash clothes or dishes for a few days, so check that you have enough clean stuff to get you through a week. If you don’t, a last-minute dishwasher load now can save you the headache of trying to wash off plates in icy water later. You might need a few layers of warm clothes, too, so make sure your sweatshirts and fluffy socks are all clean and dry. This is especially important if you’ll need to do some snow clearing – between sweat and snow, you’ll be soaked, and you will need extra sets of clothes to change into after every round with the shovel.

8. Tidy up

Don’t clean up like you’re having guests over, but clear the floors to avoid tripping over things in the dark. I have a toddler, so this is impossible to achieve, but there’s hope for many of you. Also look around for breakables on counters and tables, and move them so they can’t get knocked over when you stub a toe on a table leg and hop around cursing.

9. Make essentials easy to find.

Extra hats and gloves and thick socks for outside? Fill up a tote bag by the front door so you can get at them easily. Stack warm blankets and snuggies and bathrobes wherever you’re planning on sleeping. Have a central charging location for all your electronics so you know where they all are.

10. Put your emergency food on the kitchen counter

Sure, you bought protein bars and applesauce and cans of beans, but where did you put them all? It gets dark early, especially under blizzard conditions, and you don’t want to waste valuable flashlight time digging around in the pantry trying to find the granola. Make a pile of essentials where it’s easy to find. Put things like scissors or corkscrews nearby, if you’ll need those to access your eats and drinks.

11. Have an emergency caffeine supply

I get headaches when I skip my coffee, so I keep instant coffee around in case the power goes out and I can’t run my coffee maker. If you grind it extra fine it dissolves half-decently in cold water, but you can buy the Starbucks iced coffee packets now and save yourself that trouble. Alternatively, have a case of Coke where you can get at it and just pour it into a mug at 6am and use your imagination.

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Coffee Penguin says stay warm!

Good luck getting through this, everyone. I’ll see you on the other side.

The image and/or text links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links. Click here to read more.




The needs of the many

The anti-vaccination crowd is a tiny minority. Even in the areas with the most vaccine resistance, 95% of people are still vaccinating their kids. But the anti-vax group is loud. They have celebrities backing them up and their misguided views give news outlets a “controversy” to report on.

The 95%, the sensible people who know that vaccination is the right thing to do, well, we just go about our lives and get our kids their shots. But then these misinformed people drag down vaccination rates. Babies too young to be vaccinated and people with compromised immune systems are at huge risk. But so is everyone else. The shots we’ve given our kids aren’t magical – the virus can still make them sick. And because of the unimmunized, because of the reality of how vaccines work even when done right, now we have measles spreading again.

Public schools require children to be fully vaccinated to attend, but it’s easy enough for a parent to fill out a “religious” exemption form and completely sidestep a very important public health safeguard. And that’s unacceptable. I’m writing to local school boards and my elected officials at the county, state, and federal level, and I’m going to ask them for mandatory vaccines for public school attendance. No exemptions unless it’s a legitimate MEDICAL exemption like an allergy or immune disorder. I don’t want to see kids dying of measles. Want to skip vaccination? No public school for you. Period.

We 95% need to get loud. Very loud. Because it’s bullshit that a tiny percentage of people who have been swayed by dubious internet “research” and unethical physicians can bring back a horrible disease and put everyone else’s health in danger. There’s no controversy. Vaccines are safe and vaccines work. They have saved literally millions of lives worldwide. Start talking. Start yelling. We are many and we are right and we need to be louder than them.

Where Do Babies Come From?

 

(Note: this is an edited repost from May 2013.)

 

When a man and a woman love each other very much and want to have a baby, they share a special hug that puts a baby into the woman’s belly.

We tell children variations on this story, adding levels of scientific complexity and biological grossness as they get old enough to want or need the details.

For 1 in 8 couples, though, this story isn’t true.

Sometimes all the love in the world isn’t enough to make a baby, no matter how enthusiastic the special hugging.

Sometimes, a man and a woman love each other very much and want to start a family. They throw away all the protection that they’ve been using since their parents taught them about the mechanics of sex, and they “try”. They make jokes about bad baby names and daydream about the nursery. It’s fun and it’s exciting and they hold their breaths every month as they check pregnancy tests to see if they made it.

And they wait.

Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and look at each other with knowing smiles.

They start to wonder why it’s taking so long. They do some research. She buys tests to check her urine every day. The strips can tell her when she’s ovulating so they can have better timing. She buys a thermometer to take her temperature every morning before getting out of bed, to keep track of her cycles. She drinks green tea and eats pineapples; someone on the internet said it helps. He takes vitamins and tries to eat healthier. She cuts out caffeine and pushes through the withdrawal headaches. He avoids hot tubs on vacation. Every month, they wait two long weeks after ovulation to see if they’ll get a pink line on a pregnancy test.

And they wait.

Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and squeeze each other’s hand for support under the table.

Someone tells her to just relax. Maybe stick her legs up in the air after sex. Someone asks him if they’ve tried different positions.

They see doctors. They give medical histories. They have blood drawn. How are their hormone levels? Do they have any STDs? They send blood out to see if they’re carriers for genetic diseases. He hands over a sample container in a crinkled paper bag. He holds her hand as she lies back and tries not to faint while a tech squeezes thick gel into her uterus and fallopian tubes to see if the paths are clear.

And they wait: for the phone calls, the follow-up visits, the medical bills. They wait for answers.

Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. The silence is awkward.

Someone says they should try adopting, because their cousin got pregnant right after she got that girl from the Philippines.

Sometimes the problem is obvious, once the test results come back. Bad sperm, blocked tubes, hormone imbalances blocking ovulation. Sometimes it can be fixed with medication or surgery. But sometimes the doctors shrug and say there’s nothing wrong that they can find, but that if pregnancy hasn’t happened yet without intervention, it probably won’t. They give the couple odds. They’re bad. They cry.

There are options, of course, but they’re expensive. Many insurance plans have little to no coverage for fertility drugs or procedures. Intrauterine insemination, usually the first step, can cost over $1000, and you’re only buying a 15-20% chance at a viable pregnancy for your money. In-vitro fertilization has better odds (40-60%) but is much more invasive and expensive – approximately $10,000 per round. It’s a whirlwind of tears and hormones, injections and blood draws, medical bills and invasive ultrasounds, and time taken off work for medical appointments. And it’s waiting. Always, always waiting.

Babies come from love. Sometimes they come from science, too. Sometimes they come from donor eggs or sperm or from adoption. And sometimes, they never come.

This week is National Infertility Awareness Week. Many people are reluctant to talk about infertility. Maybe they’re ashamed of their issues, feeling like there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’ve heard one too many “helpful” comments and are afraid to tell anyone else about what they’re living. Maybe it’s too hard to talk about without crying.

Please take a moment to read this page from RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association. This is information that everyone needs to know in order to create a better support network for the infertile couples in their lives. Read it. Absorb it. Share it. 1 in 8 couples out there could really use your support.

That’s why I walked in RESOLVE’s 2013 Walk of Hope in Washington DC last June. Funds raised from the Walk support local RESOLVE programming, including support groups and educational events, public awareness initiatives, and advocacy efforts to ensure family building options are available to all. Because they should be. You can learn more about RESOLVE here, and donate to the cause, if you’d like. But just the act of you reading this post has helped the cause, too, so thank you.

 

 

The problem with “crazy.”

A friend on Facebook pointed me to a scary firsthand account of a random shooting. It’s terrifying, and I’m glad that the author and bystanders weren’t badly hurt. But the article bothered me. Quite a bit, actually.

He says (bolding mine):

“All things considered, I’m really lucky. Not only am I alive and didn’t witness him shooting himself, as so many did, I have extremely supportive family and friends, I have an understanding employer, and I have resources to talk to.

The shooter was mentally ill and wasn’t so lucky. The lesson I’m taking away from this is that we need to make mental health a priority in ourselves and in our communities. Support your local mental health organizations in whatever ways you can, financially and by forcing politicians to take the issue more seriously.”

I don’t know the details of this incident and can’t speak as to the mental health of this particular shooter, but I’m seriously uncomfortable with the way we tend to jump to analyze shooters’ motives (often after they’re dead) and so often conclude that they must have been mentally ill. Some undoubtedly are, whether they were diagnosed by a therapist or diagnosed posthumously after examination of their personal effects and interrogation of their family and friends. But some of these guys are just angry assholes with a score to settle with the world.

I have absolutely no problem with the rest of that particular post. I agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be a change in how we deal with mental illness as a civilized society. But we shouldn’t be doing it because of all these dangerous “mentally ill” people shooting up our schools.

We should be doing it for the anorexics who think their skeletal bodies are still too fat. For those with anxiety disorders severe enough to keep them shut up in their homes. For those plagued by addictions and compulsions that have taken over their lives. For those who are so deeply depressed that they can’t see a way out of the darkness except to take their own lives.

It should be obvious that we need to increase funding for mental health resources. It should not take tragedies to make that happen.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that everyone knows someone with a mental health issue. Mental illness is more than schizophrenia (and schizophrenia isn’t the devil it’s often made out to be, either). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a standard published by the American Psychiatric Association to serve as a reference for the definitions of mental disorders. Take a moment and have a look at their list of mental disorders, then think about all the people you know. Do you know someone with autism? Alzheimers? Bipolar disorder? Depression? These are legitimate mental illnesses. People living with any one of the DSM’s list of disorders would be better served by better public awareness of the realities of mental health issues, as opposed to the scary stuff we see about “crazy people” on TV.

I don’t know what to call the people with a broken moral compass and a need for vengeance or notoriety. “Mentally ill” or “crazy” are convenient and do have a ring of truth, because what adult human being of sound mind could walk into a school and murder children? We need a way to express that there must be something wrong with these people; they’re not like the rest of us. But we need a better way. When “mentally ill” is used as an explanation for reprehensible behavior, it takes that label out of its medical context and makes it into something so much more dangerous. We need to encourage people to get help, not keep them quiet around their families and teachers and doctors for fear that they’ll be labeled. Because we’ve made “crazy” a dangerous label.

Where Do Babies Come From?

When a man and a woman love each other very much and want to have a baby, they share a special hug that puts a baby into the woman’s belly.
We tell children variations on this story, adding levels of scientific complexity and biological grossness as they get old enough to need the details.
For 1 in 8 couples, though, this story isn’t true.
Sometimes all the love in the world isn’t enough to make a baby, no matter how enthusiastic the special hugging.
Sometimes, a man and a woman love each other very much and want to start a family. They throw away all the protection that they’ve been using since their parents taught them about the mechanics of sex, and they “try”. It’s fun and it’s exciting and they hold their breaths every month as they check pregnancy tests to see if they made it.
And they wait.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and look at each other with knowing smiles.
They start to wonder why it’s taking so long. They do some research. She buys tests to check her urine every day so she can find out when she’s ovulating so they can have better timing. She buys a thermometer to take her temperature every morning before getting out of bed, to can keep track of her cycles. She drinks green tea and eats pineapples; someone on the internet said it helps. He takes vitamins and tries to eat healthier. She cuts out caffeine and pushes through the headaches. He avoids hot tubs on vacation. Every month, they wait two weeks after ovulation to see if they’ll get a pink line on a pregnancy test.
And they wait.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and squeeze each other’s hand for support under the table.
Someone tells her to just relax. Someone asks him if they’ve tried a different position.
They see doctors. They give medical histories. They have blood drawn. How are their hormone levels? Do they have any STDs? They send blood out to see if they’re carriers for genetic diseases. He holds her hand as she lies back and tries not to faint while a tech squeezes thick gel into her uterus and fallopian tubes to see if the paths are clear.
And they wait: for the phone calls, the follow-up visits, the medical bills. They wait for answers.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. The silence is awkward.
Someone says they should try adopting, because their cousin got pregnant right after she got that girl from the Philippines.
Sometimes the problem is obvious, once the test results come back. Bad sperm, blocked tubes, hormone imbalances blocking ovulation. Sometimes it can be fixed with medication or surgery. But sometimes the doctors shrug and say there’s nothing wrong that they can find, but that if pregnancy hasn’t happened yet without intervention, it probably won’t. They give the couple odds. They’re bad. They cry.
There are options, of course, but they’re expensive. Many insurance plans have little to no coverage for fertility drugs or procedures. Intrauterine insemination, usually the first step, can cost over $1000, and you’re only buying a 15-20% chance at a viable pregnancy for your money. In-vitro fertilization has better odds (40-60%) but is much more invasive and expensive – approximately $10,000 per round. It’s a whirlwind of tears and hormones, injections and blood draws, medical bills and invasive ultrasounds, and time taken off work for medical appointments. And it’s waiting. Always, always waiting.
Babies come from love. Sometimes they come from science, too. Sometimes they come from donor eggs or sperm or from adoption. And sometimes, they never come.
Last week was National Infertility Awareness Week. Many people are reluctant to talk about infertility. Maybe they’re ashamed of their issues, feeling like there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’ve heard one too many “helpful” comments and are afraid to tell anyone else about what they’re living. Maybe it’s too hard to talk about without crying.
Please take a moment to read this page from RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association. This is information that everyone needs to know in order to create a better support network for the infertile couples in their lives. Read it. Absorb it. Share it. 1 in 8 couples out there could really use your support.
That’s why I’m walking in RESOLVE’s 2013 Walk of Hope in Washington DC this June. Funds raised from the Walk support local RESOLVE programming, including support groups and educational events, public awareness initiatives, and advocacy efforts to ensure family building options are available to all. Because they should be.

If you’d like to contribute to the cause, my fundraising page is here. But just the act of you reading this post has helped the cause, too, so thank you.

Blood Donation During a Crisis

(Author’s note: this was written in 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing, and it’s incredibly depressing just how often I come back to this post to share it after tragedies)

As is our human nature when faced with violent acts, people reacted with horror, sympathy, and an aura of nervous energy after the Boston Marathon bombing. Whenever there’s a tragic event, whether it’s a bomb, a plane crash, or a tornado, most of us feel like we should do something to help those affected. Even if we’re far away, even if we’re not directly connected to anyone who was hurt, there’s this spark of humanity inside us that drives us to action.

It’s crucial to note, though, that not all helpful actions are necessary, and not all good actions are immediately helpful.

Many people in my Twitter feed were urging people to go and donate blood. I am an occasional blood donor. I encourage people to be regular – for their own personal definition of “regular” – donors. But this week, when I saw the flood of “go give blood” tweets, I cautioned against rushing to the donor centers.

Why? People were horribly injured and being rushed to hospitals for surgery. Didn’t they need blood?

Yes, many of them likely did. But the hospitals were prepared. Every hospital has a plan in place to help them deal immediately with an “external disaster.” They keep a good supply of blood on their shelves, and they have means to get more very quickly.

An organization like the American Red Cross* can move blood products efficiently from one area of the country to another. It happens every day, even in calm and peaceful times, but in an emergency, the wheels turn very quickly to get blood products to where they are needed as fast as possible.There seems to be an almost-constant “blood shortage” going on, so it does seem confusing when Red Cross officials tell people not to come in right now and donate. What’s important to understand is that the key to having enough blood available for a crisis is to have an adequate blood supply at all times. That’s why the Red Cross encourages regular donations: the need is constant.

So why isn’t more blood better? Why is the Red Cross of Eastern MA asking people to please wait and come in next week if they want to donate blood?The thing about blood is that if you go to the donor center right now and roll up your sleeve, and have a unit taken from your veins, that blood will not be used immediately. It needs to be tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, West Nile Virus, and all sorts of other things. There’s a two-day turnaround for blood products. Donating blood during a crisis isn’t necessarily going to help the victims of that particular crisis. The Red Cross will do its best to accommodate all the generous donors inspired by the tragedy, but there’s a risk involved with a huge rush of donors at one time. Blood is perishable. Units of blood get a 21-to-42-day expiration date. So what happens a month after the crisis, when everyone’s just donated but all the blood is about to expire? Nobody wants to see blood wasted.

And that’s why I urged people to wait and see whether there was a need before rushing to donate. Replenish the supply by donating a little later, so that there’s always blood available for everyone who needs it.

What can you do to help when disaster strikes, then, if you shouldn’t give blood?

  1. Don’t misunderstand me! Do donate blood. Please do. It saves lives and nobody would argue otherwise. But don’t rush in after a disaster. Wait. See if the American Red Cross puts out a call for donors. If there is no immediate need, make an appointment a week in the future, or two weeks. Give often. Help keep the supply constant so hospitals can do their thing when they need to.
  2. Follow @RedCross on Twitter or like them on Facebook. When something is happening, those accounts are very active and are an excellent source of news and support. There are accounts and pages for local Red Cross areas, as well. They will tell you how you can help.
  3. Learn CPR and first aid. If you’re ever in a position to give more direct help to someone injured in an accident or attack, you will be more confident and better equipped to act.

*I use the American Red Cross in my examples because I have a familiarity with their processes thanks to my work experience, and because they are a very important blood supplier for much of the United States. I don’t claim to speak for them in any official matter.