The Grey Areas

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The media and social media are abuzz with stories, opinions, and arguments about the aftermath of the lack of indictment of the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.  I have watched this “unfold” from afar and, although I am saddened by the events, I am more frustrated by the reactions of Joe Public.  Everyone seems to have such a need to take a side and defend it wholeheartedly that one might think they are part of the police department or the community of Ferguson!

I wish people who are quick to say this isn’t about race could stop and consider, “What if?” What if racism is truly an issue that impedes our police department’s ability to do their job fairly?  Stop and consider that it is only a little over 50 years since there were riots and protests around our country to allow black people to have equal rights.  Our country has come far, but this is not something new! I believe it is naïve to think that racial equality abounds and deny that a police officer might have fear and racial stereotypes about the communities they serve.

“What if?” What if this officer was scared and reacted quickly and killed a young man unnecessarily? I believe it is a disservice to our police officers and racial minorities to not even give this consideration.  Can we not learn from this and work to eliminate the ‘Us’ v. ‘Them’ mentality that is glaring at us through our televisions? The Us v. Them mentality is what we are all observing, joining in with and, as a result, we are seeing further polarization of the two “sides.”  We are only making it worse by taking poorly thought out stances and missing an opportunity for true dialogue and growth!

“What if?” What if Michael Brown truly put the officer’s life in danger that day.  Consider that this is a possibility and that the officer had to make a difficult split-second decision.  I do not envy the job of a police officer, and I do not think we have the right to find him guilty despite what the investigation has shown. Walk a mile in his shoes.  I am not implying that racial profiling is not a huge concern in our country but it could be that, in this situation, the grand jury made the correct decision.  In fact, perhaps a bigger conversation about race relations should include a conversation about why some are so quick to condemn a young, white officer? Even if it was racially motivated, can we really blame him, the department, or perhaps we have to shift responsibility to much larger societal issues surrounding socioeconomics and opportunity and, yes, racism.

So, stop it. Stop thinking you know what really happened that day and stop thinking you have a right to take a side unless: 1. You are a police officer; 2. You are a black person/person of color and know what it is like to be racially profiled; or 3. You are part of the team of investigators who has the evidence.   Otherwise, be impartial.  Be kind to all sides. Model to our children that there are a lot of gray areas in any conflict – and excuse the pun – life isn’t so black and white. We can learn from this is we open our minds to it.

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Throwing Like A Girl

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It’s hard to be a woman…or a girl.  Not to discount the challenges of manhood.  I have never been a man, but I imagine there are pretty significant challenges there as well. However, in the last few days, the universe seems to be inundating me with the complexities of being a woman, raising a girl, being a girl, etc.  And, to be honest, I keep coming back to the thought that we (and by ‘we’ I mean girls and women) are just making it harder on ourselves and each other.

My daughter came home from preschool last week and told me her best friend at preschool had told her she wanted to play with a different girl that day because she “is prettier than you.”  By ages 4 and 5 these little ones have already learned that beauty is a commodity for women.  In my head, I fumed a little and concealed my heart breaking for her before assuring her that they are all beautiful girls. We then discussed her disappointment that the other child didn’t want to play with her and who, I believe, just didn’t know how to tell her nicely.  Our conversation ended quickly, she moved on to whatever 4-year-old activity she dove into next, and that was that.

Except, that isn’t that.  She has just started on that lifelong path of how to parse out who she is in this world that values a woman’s looks over her brains, abilities, and heart.  That experience was her first devaluing from the mouth of another girl and, unfortunately, it won’t be her last one at the hands of another girl.  Move on to this week when more than one woman I know complained of a female colleague demeaning her in the workplace.  I have had this experience as well.  I call my colleague a “bully” because at the core of her behavior was her jealousy of my success at work resulting in her desire to put me down.  She was mean to my face, talked behind my back, and luckily, in the end, was able to come to me and admit her jealousy and apologize (wow!).

After the incident with my daughter I, the dutiful therapist/mom, rushed onto Amazon to find books about self-esteem and loving yourself.  I found one book, only one book, that I was happy with purchasing.  The rest of the books all referred to princesses in some way, ie “Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?” and “Princesses Don’t Always Like Pink.”  Different authors, but the same conceptualization of little girls as princesses  – girls who are valued due to their looks, status, money, dresses….NOT their hearts, brains, abilities.  The last thing I want to do is buy my daughter a book that promotes the unrealistic and unattainable status of princess!

What are we doing to ourselves, ladies? We are hard enough on ourselves as it is but then we proceed to be hard on each other?   If only we could complement each other on our beauty and brains and heart.  If only we could be happy for one another for our successes despite the success being something we might be striving for as well.  If only we could come up with real role models for our daughters besides princesses. I, for one, am determined to instill a sense of value in my daughter that does not stem from her outward appearance, but I need your help.  I need each woman out there to promise to not scar her and other little girls further by instilling these values in their own children and fighting against the culture that says your face and body make you who you are.

P.S. I know cheerleaders can be quite athletic but quit standing on the sidelines in revealing clothes and cheering for boys – put on a shirt and play the game. Throw like a girl!

And One More Thing!

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Read last blog if you haven’t  – then return here!

About the underfunding: Homeless people are probably the least valued members of society and when something is not valued, very little money is steered in that direction.  Homeless services are vastly underfunded due to this.  Whether the government sees the value or not, public sentiment ultimately determines where the money goes.  I guess this could be debated in many cases (ie gun laws), but I think the stigma against the homeless (and mentally ill) is so strong that it has enough power to steer the funding.

What does this mean for the quality of the services provided? You guessed it – they are grossly inadequate.  The people providing support and mental health services to the most mentally ill population are the people with the least experience or qualifications.  Trust me, I do the hiring around here and it is slim pickings due to the amount that we can afford to pay.  The clinicians working directly with the clients are generally right out of school or have struggled to find jobs in more high paying mental health fields (which means they just aren’t as good) and, as I said, they are working with our most mentally ill citizens!

This is a recipe for disaster– and I think we see some of this disaster presenting itself in the form of mass shootings.

Welfare “Queen” – Part II

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I know my vast audience has been waiting patiently for my follow-up to my “Truth About the Lazy Welfare Queen” post. Well, today is your lucky day.  I am back and inspired! So, let me introduce you to Arnold.

Okay, since we are talking about a man today, he is obviously not a “queen” so I guess we shall call him a “king” instead.  Arnold is on disability for a mental health issue — the one, the only, Schizophrenia.  Most people probably haven’t spent much time with schizophrenics unless you are unlucky enough to have this disorder run in your family or you work in the mental health field.  Schizophrenia is a scary and debilitating condition that strikes people just like cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or any other genetic disease.  Schizophrenia is not multiple personalities as sometimes it has been portrayed. Without getting too technical,  it is a psychotic disorder involving delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia.  Schizophrenics have so much noise in their heads at times that they can’t function properly.  They are often scared, angry, or aggressive but, with proper medication, they are rather functional.

Arnold grew up in upper middle class suburbs of a major metropolitan area.  His parents are African immigrants, his father a doctor. He had the typical suburban life of neighborhood playmates, afterschool activities, vacations with the family, etc.  He did well enough in school to get into a well-known and popular state college.  Once in college, things just started going awry.  His grades weren’t great and his concentration waned…he was struggling with voices, confusion, anger.  He dropped out and returned home and got a good job in the county, but the problems continued. He was on the road to a full psychotic break. 

His story is so scary to me and, unfortunately, it is one I have heard repeatedly:  A successful trajectory cut short by a psychotic break. This could have been you, me, your son or daughter. Unfortunately for Arnold, some of his symptoms were paranoia and aggression.  At one point he got aggressive with his parents and he was forced to leave the home, resulting in his homelessness.  I don’t know the specifics of this part of his story, but he was able to get support, get medicated properly, and become housed through the homeless system.  Since the state hospitals/community mental health were defunded in the 80’s under President Reagan, the homeless system has managed to pick up where the hospitals left off.  Homeless services are now a major provider of housing and support services for the mentally ill. 

Arnold is now 38 years old and an exemplary member of our community.  He regularly attends to his mental health needs, he always pays his rent on time and he has been the President of the community tenant council for two terms.  He is kind, funny, articulate, and if he was walking down the street or was on the bus with you, you would never know he wasn’t your average joe citizen.  Arnold has every desire to still be successful in the way that he envisioned when he was 18 and going off to college. He started community college last year and is doing well. He keeps his course load light and gets a lot of support, but he is highly intelligent and able.

The sad part is that, even with his stability, his family is not helping him more financially even though they could.  I believe that a lot of their resistance is out of fear and the stigma of mental illness. They still tell him that they will buy him a car if he graduates from college and recently they bought him a lap top to help him, but they keep him at an arm’s length and still maintain the same standards of success for him that they had for him when he was 18 and not sick.  Here we have a world-reknowned doctor who could financially support him 100% but does not.  Would he support him if his son had been paralyzed at the age of 20 or had been struck with multiple sclerosis? Would they still only help him financially if he obtains a college degree if he had sustained a traumatic brain injury? The stigma and ignorance is powerful with mental illness.

I, for one, am glad the system is here to support him.  One, because he is human and deserves the dignity of a home and adequate mental health treatment.  Two, because if we don’t support him, the other option is him living on the street, uninsured, unmedicated, a drain on our law enforcement and healthcare systems, and a potential danger to our society.  With all of the recent mass shootings in the United States, many fingers have been pointed at the mental health system and perhaps rightly so in many cases, but a huge problem is the underfunding and lack of resources.  People can point the finger all they want but the problem with the system will continue until they are willing to support this system financially and to support the “lazy” people in need, and perhaps see them as humans in need. 

 

The Truth about “The Lazy” Welfare Queen

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While perusing Facebook last night, I came across this post, “This Halloween, I am going as a Democrat. When the kids come to the door I am going to take half their candy and give it to the kids that are too lazy to go trick or treating.”  Forget that fact that there is no such thing as a kid too lazy to go trick or treating, I found the statement mean-spirited and the propagation of this ill-informed belief is quite frustrating. I couldn’t quite bring myself to comment and get into a hopeless battle, so I am getting my frustration out in blog form. Lucky you!

I have mentioned before that I work with the homeless population, so you can probably imagine my political leaning.  In case you can’t imagine, I lean pretty far left, but I hope that I keep a balanced view of things and I definitely don’t assume I know everything about economics or running a country.  One thing, however, I am very informed about is poverty and the “lazy” people that I keep hearing people talk about despite their lack of knowledge of who the “lazy” are and how our “welfare” system really works.  So, luckily for all of my readers (all two or three of you), I am going to tell you!

One main theme we hear a lot about in the anti “welfare” vitriol is the idea of the “welfare queen.”  She is a woman with many kids who lives the high life all on the tab of our hard working citizenry.  She is fat and lazy and talking on her iphone while at the cash register at the grocery store using foodstamps.  She will spend the rest of her life dependent on the government because why get a job when you can live such a charmed life!?  Soooo, have any of you ever met a welfare queen? Had a conversation with this person you have envisioned in your head? Oh, you just saw her on the news or in the line at the store….You don’t really know her or her story or what she does the other 23.75 hours a day.  Well, I know her.  I know many of her.

Cindy (I am changing names for protection of confidentiality) grew up in a rural town with parents who both were addicts and abusive to their children.  At the age of 12 she dropped out of school.  At the age of 13, her mother sold her virginity.  That’s right, sold it for money for her own addiction.  Not surprisingly, Cindy wound up using drugs and alcohol and getting pregnant at a young age.  What else would she do – it’s all she knew.   Her family disowned her, at that point, because the father of her children is black.  Yes, Cindy is white (so if you were already picturing a black woman, well, just consider how pervasive the stereotype is).  In order to get clean and sober she had to get out of the relationship which meant entering the homeless system.  Today she relies on “public housing” and TANF – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.  The road Cindy has been on, and is still on, has been a long one.  She has three young children to support, one of which has special needs. She has been through mental health treatment, drug treatment and, with lots of support, she is working day in and day out on getting her GED.  She is also President of the tenant council at the housing complex where she lives.

Now TANF. TANF is something our complaining citizenry knows little about. TANF is welfare in 2013, and it is not what many think it is! TANF isn’t free money that has no strings attached.  A parent on TANF has to attend a state-funded job training daily, be in school, volunteering, and/or have some sort of medical exemption to receive her TANF.  Moreover, did you see the “Temporary” part of the title — yes, this assistance is Temporary. Parents are eligible for support for five years and, after that, they are hopefully ready to be on their own. TANF was implemented as part of welfare reform by Bill Clinton in 1997 (yes, a Democrat) in order to limit those people deemed to be dependent or to prevent others from becoming dependent on government assistance.

How much do you think that Cindy gets through TANF to live on to support herself and her three children?  She gets about $675/month plus food stamps.  30% of her income goes to rent (yes, she pays rent) so that leaves her with about 450 a month to support her family of four.  She pays for daily transportation to her GED and all other appointments for herself and her children, clothes for herself and growing children, household supplies, school supplies, the list goes on.  She pays for an inexpensive cell phone so the school can contact her if there is a concern with her children. With an 8th grade education, she has a lot of work ahead of her to get the GED and get viable employment in five years.

No one, I repeat, no one wants to live this way and no one is living the high life on this amount of money.  She wants a better life for herself and her children. She has no car, she has never ridden a bike, she has never seen the ocean, and she has never been on a plane.  Wow, that’s the high life.

While this is just one story, I could tell you story after story of women and children of all colors and backgrounds who are hardworking, loving mothers and they are trying to move out of poverty.  They aren’t perfect – Cindy sure isn’t, and she would never claim to be, but we have all made mistakes.  The difference is the educational, financial, and emotional foundation we were given. Poverty is intergenerational and almost impossible to climb your way out of without a lot of guidance and support.  If you had parents that valued education and/or had a strong work ethic, you are damn lucky.  If you had parents without addiction and mental health problems, you hit the genetic jackpot.  If you had parents that modeled healthy finances, thank God for that.

Please don’t try to tell me your parents never helped you with anything if you are middle class or above. They gave you either the know-how or the assistance at some point to help you succeed. I know my parents weren’t rich but college wasn’t even an option – it was a given – and they surely bailed me out at times. I needed their help because life is difficult and, in order to succeed, you sometimes need a hand.  Luckily I had my parents hands there to hold mine. I surely did not need their help because I was lazy and, you know, no one would even think of calling me lazy at the time and that is solely because I was able to go to my parents and not the government.

Are there exceptions to this – meaning people who are able to work their way out of poverty by their proverbial bootstraps? Of course there are. We see them on the news or in a magazine. Do you know why they are on the news? Because it is big news that they were able to do that – it is news because it is nearly impossible to do. If everyone did it, they wouldn’t make the news. And are there women who abuse the system? I guess there are somewhere but I haven’t met that person. Because no one chooses to live like this.

So, now that you have got me started I won’t shut up. My next “episode” will feature another resident here but will address a different issue. You have to meet him. He is amazing and will help you can better understand the people who rely on our government due to mental health disabilities and why it is a necessity to continue this support. Again, he is not lazy and definitely not the stereotype. Tune in!

Life and Death Lessons

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About a year ago, I had a beautiful little baby boy and, about a year ago, my father became very ill and died.  While my father was in the hospice, breathing but not living, I held my five week old baby next to him for an introduction — the circle of life never more apparent than at that moment.  Joy mixed with anguish, health next to illness, new life entering and another life leaving us.  I continue to struggle to make sense of it all.

I have this poignant and, perhaps cruel, juxtaposition on my mind these days but not just because of my own experience with my dad and son, but because I am watching it vividly occur in my loved one’s lives too.  A friend whose wife is pregnant, after years of trying, is also dealing with his father’s end of life.  My beautiful cousin, married to the love of her life just over a year ago, is now watching cancer steal him away.  Hope, dreams, future combined with grief, loss, goodbyes. 

I know this is life – at least that is what I am learning – but I just want to have a tantrum and yell ‘it’s not fair!”  I have been hurting that my one-year-old never knew his grandfather and also that my dad never knew him or got to watch him master his first steps or laugh as he gobbles down corn on the cob as fast as my dad used to do. I hurt for my friend who is losing his father and imagine how hard it must be for him to be joyful right now.  I hurt for my cousin, her husband, and his kids (who are now in every way her kids)  – as they treasure their time with him – the unknowns and grief they face is unimaginable.  Are the answers in religion? Are they in science? Are there answers?

I spend too much of my time trying to ‘figure things out’ because maybe there is no ‘figuring out.’  I just wish I had answers and comfort for my loved ones and myself, but I find myself at a loss.  I am a therapist and work with people to help them understand themselves and their behavior so they can change, but what do you do when there is nothing you can do? Well, I know the answer to that, I guess – as a therapist you just sit with them through their grief.  I will sit with myself through my own grief and respect it.  I will reach out and, if they need me, I will sit with my loved ones – through their grief… but also through all of our future joys.  Because there will be more joys and there are more joys. They are still right there keeping us going.