This is Not a Drill

This is Not a Drill

When I was in about 3rd or 4th grade, my classmates and I had all the standard safety drills in elementary school.  Fire drills, tornado drills, and the like.  There was one drill though, that I remember doing only once, which was the active shooter drill.  I don’t know that they called it exactly that at the time, but I do remember that they made all of us kids run zig-zag from the stairs of the school to the playground down the field and into the woods behind the playground, hiding wherever we could.  I remember it being somewhat odd that we had this new drill, and at some point they explained to us that if someone ever came into the school and started shooting, that this is what we were supposed to do.   I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta in a good school district.  Overall it was a great place to grow up, and felt safe most of the time (though not always).  This drill seemed a bit of an outlier, as though the district had heard about shootings in other schools and thought they should be prepared, just in case.  Never mind that the strategy they adopted was totally wrong and unsafe given our current knowledge of active shooter survival.  I’m sure they were doing the best they could back in the 80’s when this kind of danger was relatively new to the public consciousness.  These days, though, an active shooter with an AR-15 and hundreds of little kids zig-zagging across a playground is a recipe for our next national tragedy.

Fast forward to 1999, and I was a senior in high school.  In April of that year, the Columbine shooting rocked the national news.  Prior to that, news of violence in urban school districts was not unheard of, and discussions about guns in schools and how to keep schools and students safe were certainly in the public discourse.  The Columbine shooting was different, however, for many reasons.  The affluent, mostly white suburban school, the arsenal of weapons, the bombs, the depressed, gun-obsessed teenagers who idolized Timothy McVeigh, the suicides.  It was horrifying.  Not long after the shootings, a copycat began calling in bomb threats to my high school.  It was always around the same time of day on the same days of the week.  I was always in art class, which was located across the hallway from the school nursery, where the babies of students and teachers were.  My fellow art students and I would jet across the hallway and grab a baby before running across the street to a community center, where we stayed with the babies until their parents came to pick them up.  Even as I write this now, it sounds totally insane.  I didn’t go to a hard core inner city urban school. It was in a middle class, diverse, low crime town.  The bomb threats continued for weeks, and to my knowledge, they never caught the person.  It became clear pretty soon that whoever was calling the bomb threats in was pulling a prank to get out of a certain class, but in the aftermath of Columbine it seemed impossible to feel truly safe in that context.  Years later, in college and afterwards, when I would tell people about the drills and the bomb threats, they were horrified.  “What kind of school did you go to?  Oh you’re from Atlanta? That must’ve been so scary! They must have some really bad schools where you lived!”  Well… no, not exactly.   What kind of school did I go to?  A good one, or so I thought.

Now, that term has no meaning.  There is no such thing as a “good school.”  There is no school where children can be kept safe from gun violence, from bullying, from racism, from sexual harassment or assault, from exposure to drugs and alcohol, not even from predatory teachers.  As hard as we try to put in policies and security procedures, and codes of conduct and mental health resources, we have been unable to protect our children from the world that we have created.  A world in which violence is glorified and murder makes you a celebrity.  A world in which anger is the most readily accessible emotion and violence an acceptable recourse when you feel provoked.  A world in which we are quick to label violent criminals as part of the mental health crisis, yet refuse to properly fund community mental health centers, or put social workers in every school, or teach basic communication and conflict resolution skills to children.  Teachers are vilified, blamed, and punished for classroom problems that originate in the home, yet we refuse to give teachers the support they need from social workers and school psychologists to help families become successful in the classroom.  I say families, and not just children, on purpose.  Families need to be treated as a whole, to ensure that we see and address all areas in which the family is struggling.  We keep insisting that test scores are the best way to measure a child’s potential and progress, scores which completely ignore a child’s emotional, social, and psychological progress.  While politicians starve our public schools of resources and ignore the needs of the mentally ill and struggling families, we have turned our anger on each other, vilifying our fellow citizens and digging our heels into the culture wars to make up for the lack of a functioning public sphere.

Our schools should not be war zones, yet that’s what many of them have been for decades, and any attempts by parents to get their kids into a “good school” are increasingly fruitless.  There is no panacea to solve the culture of violence that has resulted in the mass shooting epidemic that we are currently suffering through.  It cannot be solved with thoughts and prayers, it cannot be solved by banning bump stocks, or raising the age to purchase certain weapons, or bringing religion into schools.  It cannot be solved by school resource officers, as we so crushingly discovered during the Parkland shooting, and it cannot be solved by instituting more anti-bullying campaigns.  Trying to imagine any of the teachers that I grew up with as pistol-packing renegades seems not only incredibly dangerous and ineffective, but incredibly unfair given the sacrifices and responsibilities that we already expect from teachers and our refusal to pay them properly for the amazing work they are doing every day.   We are way beyond all of those ideas now.  People continue to shout their ideas for solutions, and many of those ideas have merit, while others seem reactionary and insufficient.  I am not going to pretend to know all the answers.  I certainly have my own opinions about what I would like to see happen, but I fear that nothing we can do at this point will be sufficient without an enormous cultural shift that our country seems unprepared for and unwilling to recognize.  The problems that go into the making of an active shooter are deep and resonating throughout our culture.  Lack of empathy, isolationism, misogyny and racism, rampant abuse and violence in our neighborhoods, families, schools, and media, easy access to weapons ranging from hunting weapons to handguns to military style assault rifles, glorified violence on television both fictionalized and reality based: all of this has indoctrinated us to the point where we don’t even try to stop the violence any more, we just try to prepare for it.

I am sick.  I am sick of this culture of violence.  I used to get angry when I would hear people say that they don’t like to watch the news because they don’t like to see all the violence and terrible things going on in the world.  How could they just turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not all happening?  I understand this more now.  It comes from a feeling of abject helplessness in the face of the world we have created.  It comes from a sense of self-protectionism, akin to hiding in a closet while a gunman murders your classmates.  I used to watch Law & Order episodes like a junkie.  Ditto the ID Investigations, and Forensic Files, and other reality based crime shows.  However, after years of working with victims of violence and abuse in my real-life job, I cannot see violence as entertainment anymore.  I don’t ignore it, I can’t ignore it, and my job necessitates that I continue to confront it daily.  Yet I can’t shake the feeling of helplessness and self-protectionism.  So I will continue to battle as I have always done, one life at a time, one client at a time, and one family at a time, which includes my own.  This is the only way I know how to fight back against our cultural sickness.

A few weeks ago, my daughter filled me in on some of the 2nd grade struggles going on in her school that week.  A student did not want to include one of her friends in their games, and was trying to get the other kids to leave the other kid out.  This upset my daughter because she didn’t want her friend to be left out.  We processed this for a while, but she came to her own conclusion: “I’m going to stick up for my friend tomorrow”.   “I think that’s a good idea, I’m proud of you,” I said.  Meanwhile, back at work in my office, we prepared for another annual active shooter drill.  So when the alarm came on via my computer and cell phone, alerting to the fact that there was an active shooter (exercise) on premise, I closed and locked my office door as instructed, and listened as we heard pretend gun shots, people running through the halls, and the first responders practicing their take down in the building.  Back in elementary school, zig-zagging across that field, it seemed silly, remote, and implausible.  Sitting in my office that day, listening to shots fired and the boots running through the hallways, it felt more real than ever before.

It’s on all of us to change the culture that has created this mess that our children are now paying for with their lives.  What each of us can do is going to be different.  Perhaps engaging in the policy battles and protests, perhaps donating to or volunteering with your local school systems or other organizations, perhaps changing your buying or viewing habits to promote more of what you want to see and support, and less of what continues to sicken us.  I can’t come up with a catch-all prescription and say “here’s the solution, this will fix it”.  I just know that most of us can do something, including our feckless leaders, and we all have to be a part of creating the world our children deserve.  I will continue to hope that we can make progress together, despite the political barriers that seem insurmountable at this time.  I can increasingly sense the desperation, the anger, and the futility that is seeping into every area of our society.  I’m not willing to give up, though I understand why people do.  When it feels overwhelming, I try to remember that even though I can’t change everything I want to change about our culture, I can still be responsible for my little corner of the universe.  I know that small scale change leads to bigger changes later on.  If anything is clear to me now, it is that change comes from the bottom up, not the top down.  To me, that means working on myself, on my own family, with my clients, with my friends, and with my community.  I want bigger change, but I can’t single handedly pull it off.  To that end, bottoms up.

Self-Care: We’re Talking about it Wrong

Self-Care: We’re Talking about it Wrong

As someone in a caregiving profession, I know all about “self-care”.  Other people in caregiving professions and  high stress jobs are frequently reminded that we need to take care of ourselves in order to ensure our long lasting ability to continue to perform our work with ongoing engagement and consistent quality.  In fact, we’re lectured about it constantly, as if some extra yoga and another pedicure will absorb some of the daily stressors we experience in our work and home lives.  It’s true that if you don’t take time out from your normal obligations to do enriching and meaningful activities, your quality of life will suffer.  However, the way our culture has become accustomed to pointing to “self-care” as the primary remedy to all of the stress that has built up in our lives is problematic.

One problem with this over-used prescription is that it is just another way of deferring responsibility to the individual to resolve all of the culture induced distress that has become overwhelming in the first place.  For example, if your primary stressor is your job and/or working conditions, self-care can only go so far in remedying the problem.  If the conditions that you work under do not change, the stress is going to remain.  Certainly you can develop a set of coping skills, habits, and life-enhancing activities that will increase your quality of life outside of your job, but if you keep returning to the same stressful environment day after day, the amount of relief you will experience is limited.  While some of us have choices in the kinds of jobs and career options we pursue, it’s not always practical, feasible or even desirable to just go out and find a new job when the stress levels become unmanageable.

Administrators, managers, and supervisors love to hand out the self-care prescription when employees complain about their workplace stressors.  It’s easy to see why they do this.  This absolves the company of any responsibility to manage the workplace environment in a way that promotes the wellbeing of their employees by offering on-site services to enrich employee health and happiness, ensuring employees have reasonable work expectations and sufficient resources to do their jobs well (including fair compensation), and prioritize employee mental and physical health in their overall business plans.  By telling employees “make sure you’re practicing self-care”, the employee becomes responsible for managing whatever workplace expectations come their way, and if they can’t handle it, it’s their fault for not taking care of themselves.

Another problem with our approach to using self-care as a catch-all recommendation for worker health, is that we tell workers particularly in the caregiving professions that they need to practice self-care “so that you can care for others”.  We also tell this to parents, reminding them that one of their duties is to care for themselves so that they can continue to care for others.  The reason this is problematic is because we again are ignoring the needs of the individual in service to the sacrifices that individual is making for others, whether that be to their workplace, their family, or others.  The assumption is that if you are burnt out and stressed beyond reason, that you cannot then attend properly to the needs of others.  It’s not that the statement itself isn’t true, it’s that this is the wrong way to look at self-care.  Taking care of yourself is something that you deserve independently of your value to your workplace or your family.  You should take care of yourself because you deserve to reap the benefits of enjoying a good quality of life enriched with the things that relax and rejuvenate you.  Will it make you a better caregiver, employee, parent, or colleague?  Probably.  But that’s not the point.  Maybe you like to exercise, meditate, pamper yourself, engage in spiritual practices and reflections, spend time with the people you care about, or give back to your community in meaningful ways.  These are things that you should do because they enrich your quality of life and connection to others, not because you owe it to the people you give other forms of care or service to.  You should go about doing the things that help you to enjoy your life because it is your life and you deserve to enjoy it.

One thing that would be more helpful to most people would be if their employers starting looking at employee mental and physical health as something that they have a stake in too.  Some employers have found creative ways to support their employees beyond providing a general recommendation that employees take care of themselves.  These measures can go from ideas such as bringing in massage therapists or other service providers on site, allowing flexible or work from home schedules, up to profit sharing or co-op models that provide employees with more stake in their own companies.  Such approaches to managing employee mental, physical, and financial health can go a long way towards increasing quality of life without increasing the pressure and burdens on employees to find their own solutions to workplace stressors.  We can all support companies that engage in practices such as these, which reflect a business model that values the employees.  We can also support each other by dropping the “so you can take care of others” part of our encouragement to care for ourselves.  We all have a limited time in which to live our lives, and it can be a great joy and source of personal satisfaction and meaning when we care for others, whether that is our clients, our friends, or our families.  Moreover, we deserve to care for ourselves, as well as to receive the care others have for us, because our lives are independently valuable.  We are not only mothers, fathers, children, caregivers, or employees.  We are individuals deserving of our best quality of life as we see fit, and the steps we take to care for ourselves can and should be done to enhance life for the pure joy of it, not merely to preserve our ability to care for others.

The Emotional Costs of Hook-up Culture

The Emotional Costs of Hook-up Culture

Shankar Vedantam’s podcast Hidden Brain recently aired an episode concerning the hook-up culture that is prevalent nowadays both on college campuses and in other social circles occupied by young people.  The discussion revolves around the role that casual sex has in the lives of young people and the various social norms that dictate the changing rules of dating, relationships, and sex.

One of the most interesting points that was made was that the rules of hook-up culture disallow emotional investment in the object of sexual conquest.  Essentially, the rules dictate that sex itself is not taboo, but becoming emotionally invested in your partner is.  Instead of the traditional concept of dating, in which a couple gets to know each other and expresses some level of affection and interest towards each other prior to advancing sexually, sex is now the first barrier to be crossed.  Only after perhaps a few casual “hook-ups”, in which commitment is verboten and emotional affection is taboo, would a couple explore the possibility of actually liking each other and wanting to date more seriously.

The fact that emotional investment in an intimate partner is considered a violation, and could lead to a person being labeled as “desperate”, is an indication of the deep fear of vulnerability that pervades many people across age groups in our culture today.  Fear of being hurt or rejected causes people to limit access to their own emotions and avoid creating the bonds that actually bring emotional fulfillment in relationships.  Equally as disturbing is the fact that showing your emotions to another person can cause social ostracism and comes with the possibility that expressing your feelings could bring about the emotional pain of rejection.

None of this, of course, means that participants in hook-up culture are less likely to desire emotional intimacy and committed partnerships.  Yet it does make achieving those things more difficult.  Avoiding the work of developing emotional bonds because of the vulnerability involved leaves people missing out on one of the most fulfilling parts of relationship experiences.  There is no guarantee that any relationship will work out, and it is impossible to avoid any emotional pain.  Yet emotional pain can bring about personal growth and important reflections about what you want and what to avoid.  It’s possible that hookup culture is contributing to emotional stagnation, as people avoid intimacy and fear vulnerability.  Sexual exploration is an important part emotional growth as well, but when the culture surrounding it makes emotional intimacy punitive, then individuals are losing out on an important part of their own growth: love, in all of it’s messy forms.