6 Red Flags a Parent Might Be an Abuser

A POST FOR ADULT CHILDREN AND THOSE CONCERNED AN ADULT THEY KNOW MIGHT BE ABUSIVE*

For child abuse survivors, it takes years—sometimes decades—to recognize, name, and understand the harm they suffered. There are many reasons for this. For one, many survivors apply the term “trauma bond” to their parent-child dynamic. This term was coined for partner abuse, but can apply to parents and children as well. When a child is abused or neglected, then showered with treats (i.e., tuition for a coveted afterschool program or ice cream out), then again abused or neglected, it creates the same toxic hope that drives all victims toward their abusers. And this cycle of harm, then reward, then more harm is particularly potent between parents and children.

And here’s why. Thanks to evolutionary biology, infants and toddlers love their parents no matter how they are treated. We have to. For tens of thousands of years, a child who failed to attach to their caregiver(s) risked death. As Benoit (2004) wrote:

A normally developing child will develop an attachment relationship with any caregiver who provides regular physical and/or emotional care, regardless of the quality of that care. In fact, children develop attachment relationships even with the most neglectful and abusive caregiver.

Infant-parent attachment: Definition, types, antecedents, measurement and outcome (Diane Benoit, 2004)

As the child begins to grow up, however, and notices there’s something off about the way their parents operate, that attachment becomes increasingly complicated. And because abusers are unwilling to renegotiate boundaries or make allowances for others’ well-being, as the child enters adulthood, that bond becomes increasingly strained and distant.

As with all healing journeys, the first step is the hardest. It took me years even to say to myself My parents are abusive. But maybe I can save you a little time. Here are six signs I’ve found to be pretty reliable indicators of child abusers:

1. They claim victimhood.

The fact is, once you become a parent, you enter into a relationship where you have all the power for the first few years. Then, you have most of the power. Short of political power or professional leadership positions, few of us will ever experience the kind of power we have over children, whether that’s as a parent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher, or a priest. And if we learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it’s that power differentials invite abuse from narcissistic, entitled people.

So the moment a parent starts telling me they’re a victim because their teenage daughter argued with them or their child just came out as trans or their adult child cut them off, I start to wonder. It’s one thing to say you’re frustrated or hurt or at your wit’s end. It’s something else entirely to say that your hurt feelings are more important than anything else, so you’re the only victim here that matters.

Children are supposed to differentiate themselves. They’re supposed to want things and feel things that are unique to them. And they’re supposed to make mistakes as they do that. It’s part of growing up. So if someone experiences a child’s separating themselves from the family unit as victimization, it’s a big red flag.

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2.They fundamentally misunderstand what abuse is.

Another standard of abusers is “I would never.” They’re invested in Hollywood depictions of abuse as violent, bloody combat. If it doesn’t leave a mark, then it’s not abuse. Or so the reasoning goes. My father beat me once, then never again because he realized he’d “gone too far.” When the fact is both he and my mother abused me every day for 23 years.

Child abuse includes a range of destructive behaviors such as: putting a child down (Why do you always look like that?), threatening them (You’re lucky I let you live here), belittling a child (You’re not smart enough for that), blaming a child for family problems (This wouldn’t have happened if you’d just let your father have his way), rejecting a child (We never wanted a girl), or medical neglect (not taking the child to the doctor after an injury or failing to follow medical recommendations).

Most parents commit a couple of these sins once or twice. But when it’s a pattern, it’s a problem. And when it’s a pattern, it’s more likely the parent is going to get defensive or even be unaware of what they’re doing (“I was just trying to prepare her for the real world,” or “It’s not abuse if fill-in-the-blank”). That, my friends, is called gaslighting, and it’s yet another type of abuse.

3. They are not self-reflective and have no regrets.

Good parents, in my experience, are not only aware that they messed up a few times, but they can point to specific moments they messed up. They know what they did. And it’s not pretty. They lost their temper and shouted at their kid. Or their child came to them for comfort, and they said they were too busy. Good parents know where they fucked up, they have regrets about it, and they have tried to make amends with their child. They’re also well aware that as their child gets older, they’re going to hear about more incidents that seemed minor to them as adults—but for their child left a deep wound.

Abusive parents swear they “never did anything wrong” and “were the best parents.” They list tons of things they did for their child that are mostly superficial and required little emotional effort, from tuition to bake sales to Halloween costumes to birthday parties. If most of their “good parenting” evidence is performative—it was done publicly and boosted their reputation—that’s worrying. These lists, if you really look at them, start to sound like the parent’s proudest moments, when they got the most pats on the back. Not the moment when they turned around a child’s tears or insecurities with some loving reassurance or a sympathetic ear.

Abusers don’t have such stories because they don’t do such things. The specifics of their child’s experience (not theirs) seem to have escaped them. Not only can they not name a specific moment of emotional connection with their child, but they also can’t list a specific moment when they messed up. Big red flag.

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4. They insist their child owes them a relationship.

This is a major red flag in all relationships, from friendships to marriages to sibling relationships. No one owes you a relationship. Relationships are by definition consensual. If it’s actually a relationship, everyone gets to decide whether they want to continue with it—or not. As painful as it is, anyone can opt out of our lives at any time. And people do. But for some reason, we think family members have to stick around no matter how we treat them.

This assumption is especially dangerous in adult parent-child relationships because it has the full force of cultural and religious norms behind it. If a parent’s primary complaints are that their child is “ungrateful” and isn’t giving them “their due,” this reveals that all along the parent-child relationship was transactional. Chances are good that the parent is thinking about all those bake sales and Halloween costumes and birthday parties, which further reveals that they weren’t done for the child. Rather, they were deposits in the child-as-bank-account where a future payoff could be counted on.

But infants don’t sign a contract upon their arrival. They can’t consent to anything. And for good reason. The brain doesn’t finish developing until our early to mid-twenties. Nobody’s working with a full deck of cards before that point. Nobody. So if the parent is claiming that their child is supposed to stick around, that was the deal? HUGE red flag.

5. They think their intent is the only thing that matters.

Abusers aren’t too keen on understanding how their behavior was received. They don’t particularly care what it felt like to be their child. They just care whether or not they meant any harm, and they expect that to be good enough. I always loved her. She knew that. It sounds benign, but in the context of abuse, it can be just as bad as I never meant to hurt her.

But you did. And that’s what matters. When we’re talking parents abusing children, it impacts the entire lifespan, including physical health outcomes.

This is very similar to the mindset of rapists who say it’s not their fault and it couldn’t actually be rape because it hurts them to be called a rapist.

It also echoes the defense of racists everywhere (Hey, I’m not racist. My Black friend will tell you. I’m a good person. I didn’t do anything wrong; this is a witch hunt). Again, it’s all about them. Often, it circles back to how they are the victim, how they feel humiliated. They conveniently ignore the suffering of the person they hurt because hey, it never happened anyway. It couldn’t have because they didn’t mean for it to.

So if a parent is trying to be the judge, jury, and bailiff in the question of whether they did harm, be skeptical.

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6. They begin undermining their child’s credibility before they even graduate high school.

If someone is telling you their kid can’t be trusted, that you shouldn’t even bother getting their side of the story, you’ve got to do some digging before you just accept that. Because this is a HUGE red flag. It’s exactly what parents who neglect and abuse their children will say.

The easiest way to tell if a child is truly out of control, or if the parent is campaigning to discredit their abuse victim? Provide some resources. Free mental health counseling for the child. Support from the school district. Parent and peer support groups for children with addictions or disabilities or mental health struggles. Classes and workshops (for the parent or the child). An abuser will act appreciative, then vanish off your radar. Next time you bump into them? They’ll be telling the same story. And all those resources you provided? They haven’t tried any of them, or anything else for that matter. They don’t want to help their child; they just want your attention and sympathy.

The result of all this, as any abuse survivor knows all too well, is to isolate the victim. If the entire extended family, church community, and neighborhood believes the child is “crazy”—and the parent is the real victim—there’s no one the child can go to. There’s no one whom the child can tell.

Abuse victims don’t say anything in the midst of abuse because their abusers have ensured it isn’t safe to. We try, and we aren’t believed. There are only so many times a person can go through that before they learn their lesson: Mom or Dad got to them first.

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So look, if your parent ticks a lot of these boxes, you absolutely deserve better. And to even begin moving out of that, you have to name your experience and your feelings. But if you don’t have a lot of people in your life who are familiar with abuse, or worse yet, if the people in your life jump to your abuser’s defense, you need to have a safe space apart from all that to begin healing. A good therapist can be a huge help to sort out your feelings and what actually happened (and whether it’s abuse). Starting with a therapist search can be a good first step.

If, on the other hand, you’re concerned that someone you know may be abusing their child, that’s trickier. You can always report to Child Protective Services. But if the parents are BIPOC, it’s much more likely that the children will be removed permanently, which can have other devastating effects. On the other hand, I’ve learned the hard way that providing resources to the family or even for the child comes to nothing. Because abusers are such successful manipulators, it can be hard to gather evidence, and it can be next to impossible to convince any other friends or relatives that it’s even worth considering. According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 7 children is a victim of abuse or neglect, although many organizations state this number is underreported. The point is child abuse is incredibly common, and the majority of perpetrators are parents.

If you don’t want to call Child Protective Services or you’re worried about exposing the child to other dangers in the foster care system, other ways to take action include:

  • Donating to nonprofits (like Childhelp) that educate the public, lobby for legislative changes, and attempt to provide services to prevent, intervene, and treat the impacts of child abuse
  • Educating yourself about abuse and child development
  • If you have children, getting therapy, taking classes on child development, and scheduling time for yourself away from your children (while your children are with people they love and trust); current theories support the idea that child abuse can be prevented if parents commit to dealing with their own issues outside the parent-child dynamic
  • Refusing to engage with (or actively reporting accounts of) abusive parents who troll abuse survivors online, or who seek reassurance and approval from them
  • Believing young people who come forward with stories of child abuse; remember that it takes decades, a tremendous amount of courage, and a lot of grief to admit that your parents abused you
  • Remaining in the young person’s life and supporting them (often at great social cost to yourself) if or when they do speak out

Child abuse survivors often end up losing their entire families and communities when they decide to come forward. People who knew the family often throw their sympathy behind the parents and refuse to believe survivors. I understand. It’s easier. It’s easier to pretend that child abuse doesn’t happen in your family or community, that everything’s fine, and that you didn’t miss the warning signs or felt too helpless to do anything.

But shunning, shaming, and discrediting child abuse survivors is even worse. It makes the journey to healing and wholeness so much longer.

Many of us take to the internet to tell our stories because it’s the only place left to us. It’s the story society doesn’t want to hear. The tale that people have tried to stop us from telling. I understand that, too. We all carry this shame. Once we’re adults, we’re all complicit in one way or another because this society keeps chugging along, and we’re part of enabling that. But the more we know how prevalent abuse is, and how permissive society is toward abusive parents, the better we abuse survivors will be able to understand what we survived—and to eventually move forward, to a life beyond it.

All children deserve that much.

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*In order to keep this a safe space for child abuse survivors, comments have been turned off on this post.

12 Steps to Build Better Oscar Bait

Among film critics, “oscar-bait” is a derisive term applied to films that pander to Oscar voters. Now of course not all Oscar-nominated films have all these elements. Plenty of winners draw outside the lines. Films that break this mold are, in my opinion, the best of the crop. Bong Joon-ho’s wildly original, dystopian visions rightly landed him a history-making four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Film in 2020 for PARASITE as well as the very first time (the shame!) a foreign-language film won Best Picture.

This year, some of my favorites also defy trends, genre, and Oscar-voter preferences for easy good-vs.-evil conflicts. There’s THE MOLE AGENT, ANOTHER ROUND, NOMADLAND, MINARI, and even DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD. Still, each film has at least two of these elements. So hey, maybe no award-contender can break through without appealing to the moralizing sentimentality of Oscar voters.

In no particular order, here are 12 elements your movie needs if you want an Oscar from the voters who just want to feel good:

1. A long tracking shot, especially of someone running

I mean, hey, sure, BIRDMAN was packed with misogyny, a sycophantic celebration of a narcissistic, straight white male artist. But that single take! Or, rather, the trompe l’œil of editing that made it look like a one-shot film. And this won it an Oscar (Yeah? You want to fight me for that? Well even before #MeToo taught us that misogyny is nauseating, professional critic Sam Krowchenko said of BIRDMAN there’s “not much there”).

But with a long tracking shot (or even the appearance of one), you can distract most viewers from even asking whether there’s anything there and what purpose your tracking shot serves. Every film that makes it big—great, awful, and anywhere in between—seems to require a lengthy tracking shot. Just a few examples:

  • GOODFELLAS (as Ray Liotta rushing down stairs, through hallways, kitchens, etc.)
  • CHILDREN OF MEN (Clive Owen running)
  • CHARIOTS OF FIRE (athletes running)
  • PULP FICTION (Bruce Willis speed-walking)
  • THE SHINING (a little boy pedaling down a hallway)
  • pretty much any war film since at least 1998 (the camera zooms through the battlefield)
  • GRAVITY (17 minutes of astronauts fixing things before they run for their lives)
  • THE LIFE AHEAD (a transwoman running down—you guessed it—a hallway)

This last wasn’t even nominated for anything other than Best Song. But you know what? Maybe the tracking shot helped it get noticed.

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2. A boy or man who is sullen, inscrutable, and silent with long stares during close-ups

This doesn’t mean all silent types are crap characters. MINARI nails this one. Jacob (Steven Yeun) is an uncommunicative father who, at the film’s opening, hasn’t even been transparent with his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) about where he has moved their family. In the hands of someone as sensitive to character nuance and motivation as Lee Isaac Chung, this excels. But for many writers, this just ends up as just another stock character. A John Wayne or Bruce Willis type who talks little and does much, for no reason other than that he’s a man and (apparently) that’s a cool way to be. Oscar voters eat it up.

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3. An older person who just wants to be left the fuck alone but is forced to help people (or be helped) through the conventions of the plot

Cue THE MOLE AGENT where Sergio just wants a paycheck and a job that might do a little bit of good. Then there’s the grandma (Youn Yuh-jung) in MINARI, who is not there to help out, thank you very much. There’s Dave (David Strathairn) in NOMADLAND who just wants to maintain his independence and keep his son out of his business. Every last one of them winds up way more involved than they’d planned to be. Even Grandma’s minari literally saves the family farm.

All of these characters are radically different and irresistibly lovable. But I’m suspicious of Oscar voters’ eagerness to see old people’s lives disrupted. Apparently, in the Hollywood mindset, if you’re actually a good person, your retirement isn’t about you. It’s about how many people you can help. With about two-thirds of Oscar voters being men and over 80% being white, maybe it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that they prefer narratives that celebrate caregiving or a surrender to caregiving, as in Dave’s return to his family. Hell, even THE FATHER can be slotted under this heading.

4. Sex workers who talk more like daycare workers; criminals who are good people just down on their luck; white racists who really, deep down, have hearts of gold

Oscar voters seem to savor anything that reassures them we’re all the same. Really. We all have our hardships, but if we just talked to each other, everything would be solved. From GREEN BOOK to SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE to CRASH, Oscar-bait films present viewers with comforting worldviews where everybody is basically good. The murderers in CHICAGO? Just women who’ve been done wrong and want a shot at a comfortable life. The racist in GREEN BOOK? He just needs a Black friend. Even when it’s done well (the drug dealer in MOONLIGHT protects and nurtures a rejected, lonely child), it leaves viewers feeling safer. See? Nobody’s really that bad.

5. A total commitment to POV, even if it misleads the viewer or leaves out crucial information

Sometimes this works incredibly well. This year we’ve got THE FATHER working its A-game to achieve this. But sometimes it’s just sloppy or ill-chosen. In BIRDMAN, we’re stuck in the POV of a self-absorbed, embittered misogynist so that when an on-screen sexual assault occurs, it’s played as a joke, the victim immediately labeled as overreacting and “crazy.” Another nominee this year, MANK, disregards cinema history in order to stick unswervingly to its character’s POV. Maybe Hollywood prefers total commitment over anything else. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, they seem to love it.

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6. Inexplicably generous behavior from villains, or a stroke of luck that makes everything work

Maybe a character has been working up the nerve to speak up and assert themselves. Maybe someone has been trying to decide whether to leave town or a marriage or a job, and they’re afraid of the consequences. In a great film, their hesitation is proven valid when everything blows up in their face (i.e., Albert Brooks’ delightful LOST IN AMERICA about a couple who quits their jobs to hit the road, only for their lives to spectacularly detonate).

But not so in an Oscar-bait film. When our hero finally takes the leap? Look! It works out just great! From LA-LA LAND to THE KING’S SPEECH, we learn that if you just follow your dreams, you make it to the top. People are good. Life is great and wonderful and perfect! And if they don’t win as in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE? Hey! It’s all still great because we’re plenty happy and we stuck it to “The Man.” This is a delusion of the highest order, and it makes sense that the relatively wealthy, successful, privileged people writing, making, and voting on these films would feel it’s honest. After all, for them? That is how the world works.

7. The inscrutable, tortured, silent (sometimes abusive, always withholding) character suddenly “does the right thing” with no clear motivation

I guess this is supposed to make us feel, like most other Oscar-bait elements, that the world is safe and pleasant. “Aw look, Pete really was a good guy after all. See, Josie? There was nothing to be afraid of. He loves you.” This can be triggering for those of us who have been victims of racism, gender-based violence, and other abuse. In real life, a racist who spends time with a Black man doesn’t suddenly become anti-racist (GREEN BOOK). A coercive, controlling man who dominates his family doesn’t suddenly fix his marriage with a single act of heroism (MINARI). It’s not that these films lack nuance; MINARI especially tries to leave family tensions somewhat unresolved. But when films resolve serious conflicts with one sweeping act of generosity or goodness, it leaves the average viewer (and Oscar voter) confident it’s fixed. So we don’t have to worry about that anymore.

8. A crescendo of violence and destruction that comes out of nowhere and forces all our characters to “just get along” or “face the truth”

The fire in MINARI is a prime example of this. It is, in my opinion, the only misstep in the film. It’s just too damn convenient (I would have bought it with more foreshadowing). And in such a quiet film, it’s too damn big. It would have been like inserting a fiery automobile wreck into NOMADLAND.

Yes, every story needs a climax. And the general rule of thumb in Hollywood is that the climax has to be big. Lots of action. Lots of danger. This allows someone to reveal their true heroism. Generally, the more explosive a climax is, the more audiences love it. As my father-in-law says, something has to blow up. In MANK, it’s the party scene where Herman rants at Hearst and vomits all over the floor. CRASH gets multiple climaxes, multiple guns go off, multiple truths are faced. It doesn’t really matter if it feels contrived or if it wasn’t set up well. If we feel better after the chaos, Oscar voters will give it a thumbs up.

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9. An improbable happy ending

Would a woman in her 90s really be out on a research vessel in the middle of the Atlantic (TITANIC)? Would a disabled man really get to be part of every significant moment of history, including the life of the woman he loves, in a society as ableist as ours (FORREST GUMP)? Are we really supposed to cheer on a young woman’s suicide just because she’s disabled (MILLION DOLLAR BABY)? Would a much-put-upon wife really stick around when her husband refuses to get treatment for his mental illness and begins to abuse her (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)?

In the end, for the average Oscar voter, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that everything turns out just fine, and hey, racism is solved. Disabled people are dead or fixed. Women stand by their men. Lovers are reunited (or introduced). And all’s well that ends well. Night-night. Sleep tight.

10. A dance scene showing how vital and alive our heroes are

ANOTHER ROUND nails this. But most films? Well.

I’ll just say that you know how you’ll be having a conversation, and the five-year-old in the room suddenly starts dancing? Then, they want everyone else to dance, too. So there you all are, dancing while you avert your eyes out of shame.

Most of these scenes feel like that.

Oh, and extra points if it’s bathed in warm sunshine. Speaking of which…

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11. Lots of warm, gleaming light cascading over our heroes like haloes.

Again, the moralizing of Oscar voters knows no bounds. So the more you can ensure your protagonist looks like a saint in a medieval painting, the better your chances.

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12. A rousing speech that baldly states the film’s theme while also demonstrating a character’s growth.

THE KING’S SPEECH is perhaps the best example. Hell, it’s in the title. But even in a much better film (NOMADLAND), we get this from several characters. TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is essentially nothing but this. So to get those Oscar voters, don’t just state your theme once. Or even twice. State it over and over and over again, at length.

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In short, if you’re aspiring to create Oscar-bait, maybe don’t. Make art instead. Honor your unique vision. Give us your experience. Tell us what no one else can. I will pay to see that.

But if you want a pat on the head from people who are rich and privileged and therefore convinced that the world is happy and just, these 12 elements are a pretty good place to start.

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Three Literary Journals I’m Reading Right Now

One of my Accessible MFA assignments this semester is to read more literary journals. It’s a no-brainer: If you want to publish, you should read outlets where you’d like to see your work printed. But it’s also something I’ve just never got around to.

Mainly because there are just SO. MANY. GODDAMN. LITERARY. JOURNALS.

I know that getting published is mostly about effective matchmaking. You find the right publication for the right work. Which requires knowing what the “right” publication would be. Which means knowing tons of publications.

It’s a lot.

And as a person with chronic illness, I really wish someone would save me the time and effort. It’d be so nice to just submit to my top matches and call it good. You know, a sort of eHarmony for writers. (Please, please, please steal my idea and go make millions. I will be the first to subscribe.)

But hey, in the meantime, maybe I can save some of you a bit of work. It seems Submittable is the closest thing to eHarmony for now. Log in, click “Discover,” and it takes you to a lengthy list of submission calls sorted by deadlines. Fill in your preferences (fiction, no-fee, etc.), and away you go.

So here are three journals I’m reading and what they seem to publish, so you can judge if it’s worth logging into Submittable and sending them your masterpiece.

1. The Baltimore Review – OPEN

Barbara Westwood Diehl founded The Baltimore Review as a publication for poetry and short fiction, and its subsequent managing editor, Susan Muaddi Darraj, later expanded it to include creative nonfiction and interviews. Since then, it has shifted to an online, nonprofit, quarterly publication with submission periods running from September to November as well as February to May (hey, they’re open for business right now!).

They request a 5,000-word maximum for short fiction and publish realistic literary fiction as well as fiction with a magical realist, historical, or horror bent. They welcome new and emerging writers from around the world, and their Fall 2020 issue offered four fiction pieces, three of which were by women. However, none were by BIPOC authors. Their latest issue is a bit better; they’re still nailing gender parity, and they’ve included pieces by BIPOC writers who have PhD’s or CVs that mention The Harvard Review or are current students at Ivy League schools. So, a step in the right direction, I guess?

The stories follow traditional narrative structure, center on one character and their relationship to another—typically absent or oblivious—character, unfold over a short time span, and rely heavily on symbolism, objects, and imagery to elicit emotions from the reader and convey theme. The writing is high quality but a bit emotionally detached, perhaps an effect of the close-up focus on one strange detail (a severed head, an inflatable pool turned into a life raft, a haunted wardrobe).

So basically, if you’re white or an insanely qualified BIPOC writer, if you write traditional narratives, and if your story has a literary tone with one significant object at the center of it, The Baltimore Review might be exactly the glass slipper you’ve been looking for.

2. [PANK] – OPEN

[PANK] is always doing something interesting, and it’s always open to submissions. This is one of my favorite journals to simply read, like, for fun. And it’s a place where I’ve first come across BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ writers who already have writing careers and are doing compelling, original, irresistible work but aren’t authors you’re going to find on GoodReads or highlighted in Kirkus Reviews.

[PANK] was launched by literary superstar Roxane Gay and M. Bartley Seigel in 2006. Known for publishing not only diverse but also innovative work, it’s currently edited by Jessica Fischoff and Chris Campanioni. Not only do the [PANK] annual print and quarterly online editions include the standard fare of short fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews, they also publish essays and articles on a range of subjects, including a recent one addressing how to do a writing retreat during a pandemic. Then there are the folios, issues centered on a specific theme or experience (so far, my favorite is their Latinx/Latinadad folio). They even print books via a contest. So yes, it’s a lot. Their word count max for both fiction and nonfiction is 7,500 words, which is generous.

And here’s the part where I like to attempt a summary of what you’ll usually find in each publication. And most magazines do have a flavor to them, a house style, a secret sauce. [PANK] just doesn’t. It’s wide open. The piece on writing retreats? It’s chatty and homey, like you’re talking over coffee. “The Antichrist Drops a Mug on Our Kitchen Floor” by a BIPOC LGBTQ+ writer I enjoy, Nicole Oquendo? Heart-stopping imagery with a dark emotional undertow. Experimental, genre, literary—the gang’s all here.

So if you’re writing something that you worry mainstream readers will think is “weird” or “off,” that isn’t a tidy fit in most genres, and that represents an experience that is underrepresented, yet that feels absolutely right and true, [PANK] might be just the home for it.

3. Quarterly West – OPEN

Founded by James Thomas in 1976, Quarterly West is an online literary journal staffed by PhD students in creative writing at the University of Utah. Open for submissions from February 1 to April 1, the journal publishes poetry and short fiction (6,000 words maximum; 1,000 words max for flash) as well as new media, reviews, and translations. Currently, Amy Sailer is the editor with Matty Layne Glasgow as managing editor and Alyssa Quinn and Jesse Kohn as prose editors.

The staff is overwhelmingly white, but the readers (who will first encounter your submission and decide whether to pass it up to an editor) are much more diverse. The most recent issue shows fair gender equity in the authors, and although most work published is by white writers, work by a few Black and Latinx authors also appears. The publication slants literary, the two stories in the most recent issue both experimental, broken into tiny sections, fragments even, headed by character names or settings or objects, often with a touch of magical realism (a dead rat that gives advice to a character each night, an angel-fairy who sings to an anxious boy). The poem “Eight Belles” by Madison Mainwaring is magnificent. All the pieces are exceptionally strong, rich with symbolism, and rooted in deeper questions about literary form and theme. The journal also prints special issues they call “features” focused on specific topics, such as wilderness, recovery, and queerness.

It doesn’t seem like you have to be an academic to publish here, but a passing acquaintance with Derrida, Foucault, Butler, and Halberstam (a theorist specifically mentioned by one of their editors in an issue) means you’re probably more likely to offer work that’s going to interest the editors. After all, your audience is a gaggle of PhD students who have read way too much literary theory. Just something to keep in mind.

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So there you have it. As you’ve probably noticed, many literary journals are affiliated with university English departments, either directly or through the people who staff them (often MFA graduates). And yes, absolutely. This means if you are not part of that world, not comfortable in it, or actively excluded from it (say, because of a disability), you may be better off submitting to literary journals like [PANK] that are more interested in originality, diverse perspectives, and risk-taking than they are in a specific tone or style.

A lot of literary journals produce homogeneous content. In a way, it can’t be helped; they reflect the tastes of two or three people (possibly even one) who made the final decision on what to print.

If the stories are “experimental,” they are often experimental in the same way. If they are “woman-centered,” they center on the same stereotypical “womanly” concerns (seriously, I just read one literary journal that offered three stories by women writers, all of which featured women frantic over whether they could reproduce—in the same issue). If they are by BIPOC authors, there’s often an erasure of that identity, so the story feels “race-less” to white readers. To say it’s a problem is to understate the magnitude of discrimination in publishing and the way published work often shores up the status quo, echoing the comfortable worldviews of privileged, highly educated white people.

So I want to be clear. As I list journals over the next few months, I am not pointing to any of these (except [PANK]) as examples of equity, diversity, and opportunity in publishing. I’m just trying to get the lay of the land, and sadly, that landscape includes a whole lot of exclusion and erasure. And since literary journals often, for mainstream and literary writers, serve as gatekeepers for book publishing and literary agents, it’s important to examine this landscape honestly, to see what gets published, and why.

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Nine Signs You Have a Bad Doctor: What I Wish I’d Known

As my husband and I learned this February, having a bad doctor can be deadly.

First, before we get in too deep, I just want to acknowledge that no doctor is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and tragically, even a mistake made in good faith, with the best medical practice, can still result in death. Some diagnoses can be notoriously difficult to get right, taking months or even years to nail down. And as I’ve written here before, every diagnosis is merely a hypothesis, a working theory. But a good doctor knows that, and a great doctor is always open to revising their working theories.

When I picked my first official Primary Care Provider (PCP), I was 30 years old, and I thought I’d done everything right. I read books about how to choose a doctor. I pored over the Seattle Met’s Top Doctor lists, where medical providers voted for their best colleagues. My ideal doctor fit all the criteria, including being board certified. Her patients had left swaths of happy, grateful reviews online. So when my husband was referred to an orthopedist who was highly regarded by his peers, well reviewed, and considered one of the top regional specialists in his field, it checked all my boxes, and I again felt confident we were in the right hands.

Except he wasn’t.

And neither was I.

The real test of a doctor isn’t whether they have a good bedside manner. It’s also not their popularity. And it sure isn’t whether everything goes smoothly when they diagnose, prescribe, and treat a condition that turns out to be exactly what they thought it was.

The true test of a doctor is what they do when they think they know what’s going on, and then they’re confronted with evidence that they don’t have a clue.

“Confidence makes you stupid,” Hannah Gadsby says in her latest Netflix special Douglas. It’s true for teachers, for policymakers, for activists, and for doctors. If a doctor is sure they’re right, they’ll find ways to dismiss evidence to the contrary. And that can cost you your life.

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Now that my husband and I have a PCP who is always open to revising her working theories, I know better. Reviews, likability, board certifications—they’re nice. But if a doctor can’t listen, ignores new evidence, and does nothing while your health disintegrates, it’s time to break up.

Here are nine warning signs I wish I’d known five years ago, as my migraines transitioned from episodic to chronic, and long before my husband’s life was threatened by a pulmonary embolism:

1. They don’t want to hear how your health is impacting your life.

My providers didn’t want to know if I was able to hold a job through my migraines. They didn’t ask if the migraines were keeping me from doing the things I wanted to do. In the end, I realized it was because they didn’t want to know. The fact that my life had fallen apart, my income had plummeted, and I was barely able to work (from home) 15 or 20 hours a week was crucial information. It also would have indicated that their treatment plan had failed. If a doctor isn’t even willing to check their hypothesis against the evidence, just in case it reveals cracks in the foundation, they’re not up to the job.

2. They refuse to adjust the treatment plan, even if symptoms are worsening.

My husband was incredibly nervous before his appointment with the orthopedist. His pain was worsening, and so was the swelling. I’m not a trained medical provider, but I’ve had my fair share of joint injuries, and even I knew it wasn’t right that his whole limb continued to swell months after an injury. We were both concerned.

Yet when he went in, the orthopedist gave his leg a cursory exam. When Josh told him the pain was worsening, the doctor said, “The pain you’re experiencing is out of proportion with what you should be experiencing.” Surgery wasn’t an option, the pain couldn’t be that bad, and he’d just need to tough it out and keep going to physical therapy. When Josh pointed out the swelling, he responded, “The only reason you’d have swelling is if you’re doing lunges or squats. And since you’re not doing that, there’s no reason there should be any increased swelling.” After telling Josh they were sticking to the original plan, he simply walked out of the room.

It turned out the physical therapy was breaking up his blood clots and helping them spread throughout his body. Three days after that appointment, a nurse practitioner immediately spotted that the swelling was due to blood clots, and Josh was hospitalized with a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.

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3. They run out of ideas fast.

In 2019, I started collapsing. First, my heart would flutter. I’d feel nauseous, then weak. Next, I’d break into a cold sweat. My legs would buckle. I’d go down, as my vision dimmed and went black. I never lost consciousness completely. But I’d be unable to move or even speak for minutes at a time. When I was able to operate my body again, it was only barely. A bad migraine set in, and I wouldn’t be myself for days.

My doctors checked my heart with an echocardiogram. Healthy. Blood pressure. Healthy. MRI. Normal.

Then that was it. There were no further investigations into anything. At all. Only this month, two years later, did I learn from my new provider that a B-12 deficiency, though rare, can also cause heart palpitations. No one looked at that. No one looked at my diet, my red blood cell count (I’ve been anemic most of my life), or anything else that might cause fainting or weakness.

Instead, my neurologist said hey, I think it’s the migraines.

I thought so, too, but I wanted to be sure.

Too bad. Nobody had any other ideas about what else it could be. Which I’ve just learned is bullshit. There are loads of possibilities. My new provider just met me, and she has ideas for what specialists I should see and what we might need to test. It’s not a small thing, to collapse without knowing when or where it will happen. I had to give up riding my scooter. I gave up driving completely. My life shrank still further. And everybody on my medical team seemed just fine with that.

4. They talk up new treatments while sharing none of the limitations.

Two of my previous doctors spent a couple years talking up injectables to me. I finally broke down and decided if it was so great, I might as well try. They told me that it had helped “many” of their patients and made a “huge difference” for them. But unfortunately, they hadn’t told me that for 50% of patients Ajovy only produced a 30% or smaller improvement in symptoms. When it did nothing but give me a rash, month after month, I was devastated. I had been so sure it was going to help. After all, that’s what I’d been told. I plunged into a deep depression and lost the heart to try any new treatments for over a year. Chronic illness is exhausting. Getting your hopes built up, then dashed by being handed unrealistic expectations is not only unsustainable. It’s cruel.

My current provider? The new supplements she asked me to try “made a big difference for some of my patients, and for some of them, it had no effect.” When I looked it up, that was about right. I had roughly a 50/50 chance of a 50% improvement based on a very small (and thus less reliable) number of studies. Realistic expectations can give me the stamina to see out the marathon of chronic illness.

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5. They give you only a few seconds to think of questions or concerns before they’re out the door.

I don’t know about you, but I’m never at my sharpest in a doctor’s office. There’s first the early wake-up time. Then, there’s the long commute by bus or car, anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. Next, there’s paperwork. And finally, the string of rooms (waiting rooms, exam rooms) that are all harshly lit and ice cold. By which point, I always have a migraine aura, contemplate my mortality, and wish I hadn’t come.

By the time the door finally swings open and the doctor sweeps in, I just want it to end as quickly as possible. After a series of questions, a quick blood pressure check, a few more questions, and a recommendation to continue the same treatment plan, I’m asked if I have any other questions. I’m usually so bewildered by the “other” (Had I asked a question already? If so, when? What was it?) that I shake my head and the doctor is gone. And I only remember as I’m putting my clothes back on that I had something I wanted to ask. And I only remember what that was once I’m back home.

Maybe this is part of the PTSD, where being alone in a room with a stranger is a frightening experience that shuts down all but my most basic brain functions. Maybe it’s the vulnerability of being locked into a maze where I’m told to strip and submit my body to whatever touching other people plan to do to me (another trigger for survivors of sexual violence). Maybe it’s the anxiety of knowing I’ll have a migraine once I get home. Who knows? But the 60 seconds at the end of the appointment when I’m supposed to ask the questions I had carefully memorized just aren’t enough.

6. They give up easily.

A bad doctor stops trying to figure out what’s wrong and settles for well, you’re still breathing, so I guess that’s good enough. Absolutely, chronic illness can burn out even the most persistent, caring providers. It’s hard on everybody to not know why things are getting worse and to feel helpless. But the right doctor will either rally and keep investigating or refer you to someone new. A bad doctor will simply keep going as if everything’s fine, even as your sanity and functionality nosedive in front of them. If you even smell resignation in the air, take the time you need, pack your bags, and go looking for someone else.

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7. They’re too friendly.

Oversharing is a big no-no in most professions. It’s especially unhelpful when there’s a power imbalance, as between a boss and an employee or, yes, a doctor and their patient.

For years, I thought my doctor was simply nice. She had a pleasant, cheerful bedside manner. She asked if I liked my job, how my husband was doing, told me about her excitement over a visit from her children. As someone who’d become mostly housebound, I was starved for social connection. I appreciated our chitchat.

But then, during one of our last appointments, she shared a story about an old friend of hers from college. She had finished the exam and was writing up the notes for me when she told me that a few years ago, her friend had her carpets cleaned. This woman was an amazing doctor, a kind woman, active volunteering her time in the community as well. But she did notice the carpet cleaner had left a mess behind, so she called them back to request they come clean up the mess. The carpet cleaner returned. And murdered her.

“I just don’t get it,” my doctor said. “It’s not like they weren’t going to find out who did it. Right? Why would someone do that? Just over some dirty carpet? Who would kill someone over that?”

Her story left me deeply uncomfortable. It wasn’t just the horrifying content, or the obvious fact that she needed to be discussing this with a therapist, not a patient. It was more the alarming familiarity with which she shared this deeply personal trauma and handed it off to me. I’ve lost two jobs, can no longer support myself if I needed to, have considered suicide as a way out of this nightmarehow can you possibly think it’s okay to put this on me?

8. They leave you feeling that if only you constructed a better argument or communicated better, they’d take your symptoms seriously.

Run. If ever a doctor leaves you feeling this way, run straight for the exit and do not come back.

I wasted years fantasizing that if I just told the right story, in the right words, at the right moment, they’d start referring me to better care providers. When I asked for a referral to an endocrinologist to ensure my hormone levels weren’t contributing to the migraines, my ex-PCP simply asked, “Why?”

I was so astonished that this was her defense, it rendered me speechless. I was the patient, saying I don’t know what would make this better, but I want to get better. A physical therapist told me maybe hormones are playing a role.

Her “why” to me indicated that she didn’t know, either. And she wasn’t interested in finding out. She didn’t counter with a suggestion for a different specialist. She’d already made up her mind. Nothing I said was going to fix her fixed mindset.

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9. They can’t say “I don’t know.”

The first provider who told me this was an acupuncturist running her own clinic. During our first consult, she sat down and took her time asking about my history, gathering my information, and discussing treatment plans. I already was in awe of her transparency and ethics when she told me, “For migraines, it can often help. But vertigo is a difficult case. I don’t know.”

Hearing those words, I realized I’d been holding my breath for a year. Finally, it felt like I could breathe again. Someone was willing to be honest with me about treatment outcomes.

It’s taken me nearly five years to find that again, this time in a PCP. When I mentioned that I’d tried magnesium supplements for a few months, she recently prescribed supplementing CoQ10 three times a day, 100 mg each dose, as well as 400 mg of riboflavin once a day. “They’re the best backed up by research,” she told me. “And for some of my patients, it’s dramatically reduced their migraines. But for others, it’s had no effect. We’ll have to see.”

That’s all I want.

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Even the best doctors are going to mess up sometimes. They’re only human. But if they have good professional boundaries, if they invite you to ask questions throughout the appointment, if they are open to considering a variety of possible explanations and systematically rule out the worst ones first, if they’re transparent about the likely outcomes of treatment, if they believe you when you report that your symptoms are worsening and act accordingly, and if they’re open to revising their treatment plan and diagnosis, you might have landed a keeper.

Finally, if a friend is going through a health crisis and you want to be there for them, don’t come at them with your personal diagnosis and prescriptions. Just don’t. Save us all some time and energy, and recognize you don’t have the expertise to be doing that. Instead, if you really want to help, ask one simple question:

What is your doctor doing to get ahead of this?

And if your friend doesn’t have a good answer? Suggest they get a second opinion and give them a referral, maybe with your doctor, maybe with another doctor you’ve heard good things about. I only got diagnosed with chronic migraines because a coworker asked me this question and, unsatisfied with my answer, told me about a balance clinic she’d heard wonderful things about.

Failures, delays, and setbacks are part of the journey for many of us with chronic conditions. But we all deserve respect, courtesy, professionalism, and perseverance from our providers. And if they’re not giving you that? Maybe it’s time to walk. Chances are good that someone out there is willing to listen, support, and work hard alongside you. Maybe at the end of this road, my husband and I will each be where we started. But at least, with good providers, we’ll have peace of mind from knowing that we left no stone unturned.

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Five Literary Theories and Their Limitations

This is going to be one of my last posts on literary theory, I promise. At least for a bit. Well, maybe until I finish reading David Herman’s essay “Narrative Theory after the Second Cognitive Revolution” (fascinating stuff about the mind itself as a product, as well as a producer, of discourse). We’ll see.

But first, as I say goodbye to the first semester of my Accessible MFA, let’s raise a glass to some of the most compelling literary theories, the fundamentals of literary theory if you will—without which, we wouldn’t have some of my personal faves, like feminist theory or disability studies or critical race theory or gender studies.

To five literary theories that shaped the revolutionary theories of today, I raise my glass:

  • Formalism is grounded in Aristotelian and Kantian aesthetics, which argue that artistic forms express a perfect ideal. Literature, and poetry especially, “invents another nature” that is independent of human self-interest and therefore demonstrates our capacity for freedom (presuming that once art elevates us above the pettiness of our daily concerns, we will no longer be buffeted about by competition, greed, lust, and all those who would use these to manipulate us). Beginning in the 1920s, the Russian Formalists, while also interested in structure and style, were specifically interested in literary devices that obscure meaning and defamiliarize the bureaucratization of modern life. While both formalisms strive to implement scientific approaches to reading texts, they have been criticized for not taking historical context into account as well as too readily dismissing authorial intention. Think of Formalism as the perfectionist school of literary theory. It’s populated by straight white men in buttoned blazers (or cardigans) who hang multiple degrees on their walls and stroll around lecturing between sips of coffee (or tea), pausing only to tut-tut anyone who mentions gender, race, society, or all that fluff. For them, art is about perfectly realized language and technique, nothing else. When it comes right down to it, formalism is the father one can’t help but rebel against. Which has made it a fertile birthplace for many theories that argue form is content and language is the author’s biases, intention, and social milieu. More on this debate here if you’re interested.
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  • New Criticism was developed at Yale University, and the term was coined by John Crowe Ransom in his 1941 book, The New Criticism. Considered by many literary theorists to be a branch of Formalism, New Criticism posits that texts are independent objects, which must be evaluated according to their own criteria as indicated by their form and subject. Influenced by T.S. Eliot and James Joyce who believed that art is independent of the artist and must be as rich and complex as reality, New Critics such as I.A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks developed the practice of close reading. This reading strategy—still taught in high schools and universities today—is designed to reveal tensions that the work then reconciles through artistic unity. However, New Criticism has been faulted for proposing a reading strategy that can never be truly authoritative (because you can always dig deeper) as well as for emphasizing reconciliation, which is essentially centrist. I mean, dude, can’t we just sit with the contradictions? If art is aiming to be as complex as reality, then keep it that way. Our lives don’t boil down to some tidy unity after we’re dead. Maybe the best literature shouldn’t, either.
  • Psychoanalytic Criticism draws on Freudian theories to interpret literary symbols, language, and history. Two significant psychoanalytic critics, Peter Brooks and Jacques Lacan, agreed that language is structured like the unconscious. Lacan applies Freud’s concepts of condensation and displacement in dreams to literature. Similarly in the 1970s, Brooks draws on Freud’s “The Dream Work” from 1905 to analyze narrative structure, arguing that endings are delayed in literature in order to put off death and allow the work to choose its own death, actualizing the desire of all living things (these theorists assume that even in death, we want some say about how it all ends, which seems pretty true to me). Harold Bloom also applied Freud’s Oedipus complex to literary history itself in an effort to explain authors’ apparent compulsion to recycle the work of their predecessors. He read this as a father-son competition, rather than the simple fact that artists find pre-existing forms useful for both improvisation as well as dialogues with the history of their art. However, even Lacan and Brooks were critical of Freud’s presumption of a stable self as well as his interest in the unconscious of the author and their characters. Feminist critics also have objected to applying Freudian ideas of masculine power struggles to literary history because this excludes women. Basically, this approach has all the same issues that Freud does, and then some.
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  • Post-Structuralism (a vast circus tent under which Deconstruction also lives) asserts that ideas are not absolute, that all structure is constructed, that language is fraught with uncertainty, that ways of reading have political implications, and that literature occurs within a sociocultural and historical context. Beginning in the 1960s with Derrida, Post-Structuralism acknowledges the necessity of structure both in literature and in theory. However, it also asserts that this structure is always imposed from the outside. Opposites and tensions are interdependent, relationships and connections need not be linear, and all definitions are a snapshot of language at a particular point in time. Although some critics argue that Post-Structuralism claims there is no such thing as knowledge, Post-Structuralists would counter that there is no such thing as knowledge that is final, objective, and complete. This can be a rich and humbling place to write fiction, poetry, and memoir from, but it’s not so useful if you’re trying to write a term paper in five hours where you have to settle on a specific reading of a specific text. In fact, if you hang out with these guys too long, you can start to sound like a bit of an asshole (But can we really ever know Truth? What is Truth? Everyone has their own truth, but none of us really knows Truth, limited by our time and place as we are). Cue the eye roll from your weary professor who simply asked what you think might be true about Daisy’s feelings for Gatsby.
  • Post-Colonial Criticism examines the relationships between colonizers and the colonized, specifically interrogating the identities imposed on the colonized by their colonizers, as Edward Said does in his critique of Orientalism. Concepts applied by post-colonial critics include double consciousness, hybridity, and the master-slave dialectic. Interested in exploring the agency of the colonized as well as inserting colonized authors into the canon, post-colonial critics and writers also integrate economics, history, politics, and language into their critiques of Western hegemony. However, one criticism of Post-Colonial Criticism in the United States is that it often supports race and gender hierarchies, entering into dialogue with, rather than dismantling, traditional canons of white male authors. Indeed, some post-colonial thinkers have embraced the racist, colonizing institutions that at first shunned them, and now pride themselves on their own gate-keeping efforts. In contrast, many of the best post-colonial critics and writers are in dialogue with the best critical race theorists and concepts. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterful novel Americanah which explores both race and post-colonial struggle in contemporary America. There’s also the famed friendship between Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (And if you’re unsure who Soyinka was, as I embarrassingly was before I added him to my MFA guest lecturer list, check out his lecture on slavery as metaphor and reality in literature here.)
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Well, that’s about all we have time for today. But there you have it. Five literary theories, their pros, cons, detractors, and successors. If you can be sure of anything in literary theory, it’s that nothing stays the same. Someone will always come along to shake things up. Thank goodness. But it helps to know exactly what they’re shaking up and why. Whether you’re someone who loves tradition or loathes it, it helps to know where we’ve come from. As a character in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Primeval and Other Times goes around warning people, “You can’t make something out of nothing.” History is always the material we’re building with. It helps to know where the roots are and what they’re made of.

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My Life Is Out of Control, So I’m Trying Goals

Some people scoff at goal-setting. They think it’s new age-y. Or they think it’s fear-driven. Or they think what’s the point? Life isn’t in our control anyway. Which for many of us—especially the lower our incomes, the poorer our neighborhoods, the more marginalized our gender and orientation, the darker our skin, and the more health challenges we face—is certainly a factor. There’s a limit to how much we can control. And in the end, what we control can be quite small.

But it’s still there.

Of course there’s the old saw from Viktor Frankl that we can always “choose our attitude.” But a hopeful attitude doesn’t help in the midst of trauma or infinite loss (ongoing losses that cannot be resolved, as in chronic illness, or in the perpetual cascade of police violence against Black communities) or terminal illness. What exactly is one hoping for when things are bound to get worse or, at best, stay the same? Is there anybody who hopes to linger on their deathbed a little longer, in pain and mental confusion? Does anyone lie in the dark during a migraine, blinded by the swirl of colors and deafened by tinnitus, stomach roiling, the pain drawing tears, and actually hope to live longer so that one might experience more of this?

Hope, as most people would define it, can come dangerously close to delusion. This kind of hope is just another face of denial. Many people hope for reprieve, hope for miraculous healing, hope for the cross to be lifted. And when that didn’t happen for me with chronic migraines, I thought about killing myself. Such hope is a knife edge. Maybe, for some, it can save. But for others, it can destroy.

Hope is something I have learned to distrust. Hope led me to spend 25 years trying to build a relationship with abusive parents whom, in the end, I simply needed to leave. Because of hope, I spent 10 years in an abusive marriage, hoping he would value me, telling myself that if only I believed and was kind and patient, it was sure to get better.

In many situations, when I want to grapple with life itself, hope is an utterly useless thing.

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Setting goals, on the other hand, is about action, not attitude. You don’t have to feel great to work toward a goal. You don’t even have to believe it’s going to lead to anything. Much research in the field of psychology shows that belief follows action, not the other way around. If you want to feel like you have some control, you don’t wait until you do. You don’t focus on changing your attitude. You just do one small thing that you can control, even if that’s just sharpening a dull pencil.

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As an adult, I have learned that I always have something I can control (this is rarely true, I hope it is obvious, for children in abusive homes, human trafficking victims, and slaves). And right now, I desperately need something in my control. After a pet’s death, my husband’s hospitalization with a life-threatening condition and months of uncertainty ahead, and the ensuing unknowability of our future, along with my own chronic illness, there’s a whole lot I can’t control.

But there are a few things I can.

Like how much I write most weeks. Or whether I stick to my exercise routine.

So here’s where I’m starting:

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1. Find the Value

For me, I want to be a writer who supports women and nonbinary people in embracing our complexity, in not having to be perfect or heroic or noble, and in interrogating the stories we’re often handed where we’re either victims or heroes or objects of desire, intrigue, and magical wisdom. In our day-to-day lives, fixing coffee or having a spat with a neighbor or eyeing a friend with suspicion, we’re neither. And that doesn’t make us “petty.” It doesn’t make us “selfish.” We shouldn’t have to prove to anybody that we have a right to live our own lives. We are not reservoirs of sympathy, support, and nurturing for men to draw from. We are not defined by our relationships with men, our attractiveness to men, our desirability, or our power and status. We deserve respect. And we deserve it simply because we are here. We don’t have to rescue or guide or redeem others. We can’t even rescue ourselves sometimes. And that doesn’t make us “pathetic.” It makes us human. Most men in most stories (from Mad Men to Updike to Baldwin) can’t rescue themselves, either. And our lives, just like theirs, are compelling and worthwhile. Our lives are art. Our lives are unimaginably beautiful and powerful just as we are.

2. Set the Initial Goal

The typical advice is that it should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to your values and long-term goals, as well as time-bound. It also should change. So for me, that goal for now is:

Write three times a week for 15 minutes.

3. Anticipate Obstacles and Plan for Them

Shit will happen. Some of it is pretty easy to see coming. Some of it will blindside us. To make it easier to cope with the blindsides, it helps to plan for the predictable shit.

  • I have chronic migraines, so some weeks it won’t be possible to sit at a computer (which triggers migraines as well as worsens any current migraine). That’s okay. The goal is to ensure the general trend is three days a week.
  • My migraines tend to hit at certain times of the day, and I tend to be more functional at other times. Since evening after dinner is best for me, I’ll aim to write after dinner.
  • Since my husband and I can talk for hours and lose track of time, I’ll set an alarm to remind myself to get started.
  • I’ll initiate my writing session by fixing a cup of tea after dinner, which can give us time to end our conversation gently rather than abruptly.
  • If it’s a really bad migraine week, working in my writing notebook will count. This relieves the pressure of relying on a migraine trigger (screens) to achieve my goal.
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4. Commit to Weekly Progress Reports

Every week on this blog I’ll report what worked, what didn’t, and what I think the next steps are for the best outcomes. Accountability is key to successful goal-setting. And that can include rewards.

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For this past week, I just squeaked in with three writing sessions of 15 minutes each. I was able to use the screen each time and make progress on an outline. This seems to be working well for me, so I’ll continue doing the same next week. If that works, my goal is to bump it up to 4 times a week by May. We’ll see how it goes. But for now, this gives me something to focus on that I have some control over. And that’s all I wanted.

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Feminist Literary Criticism: The First Hundred Years

Feminist literary theory posits that gender is socially constructed rather than biologically determined. For example, why in Western cultures do we associate pink with femininity and blue with masculinity? Why do we assume that men have an instinct to protect and defend while women have instincts to nurture and “mother” children (there is no biological evidence of a maternal instinct, as shown here)? Yet if there is no scientific evidence proving that color preferences, behaviors, and social roles are biologically determined, why do we feel so deeply in our bones that they are?

Feminist literary theory says we need only look at the stories we are told. Literature itself builds this sense of inevitability, of naturalness, of femininity and masculinity as imperatives. Whether we turn to stories from religious texts or fairy tales, we find similar stereotypical representations of gender that reinforce what our families, communities, and social institutions tell us. But, as we have all learned from #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, disability studies, and the LGBTQIA+ justice movement, just because certain biases are widespread does not make them true. We cannot simply take things at face value, especially representations of disenfranchised groups presented by those in power.

Stories are created, told, and re-told in a social context for social purposes, often in ways that reinforce existing prejudices and power structures. Thus, authors and their writing must either resist socialized assumptions about gender, or accept them. Just as with racism, it isn’t possible to be neutral. Doing nothing, questioning nothing, accepting social norms as objective truth is both racist and sexist. And because society privileges masculine authority, experience, and work, feminist literary theory argues that both women authors and the texts they produce are marginalized and devalued. In fact, the absence of women from the Western canon reflects the sexist assumption that women have inferior intellects and therefore belong in the realms of childcare, cooking, housekeeping, and nursing (which are presumed to be less intellectually demanding). Because the very existence of women authors challenges gendered hierarchies and assumptions, these writers face more challenges not only in publishing and recognition but also the act of writing itself, for they too are socialized to view themselves and their peers as inferior, needy, and valued most for their attractiveness to men.

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Given the social construct of gender, the valuation of one gender at the cost of others, and the bias against women’s intellectual work, feminist literary theory sets out to amend women’s exclusion by revising the canon and challenging the presentation of gender in literature. Focusing on both women authors and women characters, this literary theory demonstrates how received notions of gender inform the language, social status, and significance we ascribe to them.

In the 1960s, feminist criticism focused on the treatment of women in men’s literature. Theorists critiqued the passivity of women characters (Dora in David Copperfield), their presence as an object of male desire (Daisy in The Great Gatsby) or an impetus for a male character’s quest or awakening (Sleeping Beauty, the hapless Lois Lane from Superman, and Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State), and their utter lack of interest in anything other than the men characters. This last is best exemplified by the Bechdel Test, developed in 1985, that evaluates a story’s sexism by whether there are at least two women who talk to each other about something other than men.

But this emphasis on the representation of women in fiction later expanded to include the treatment of women authors as well. Theorists in the 1980s proposed an alternative literary history that acknowledges women’s contributions, emphasizes the unique struggles faced by women of color, and their centuries of published work.

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One of the lingering disputes in mainstream feminist criticism is whether feminists have in fact supported patriarchy by accepting essentialist labels from men, such as intuitive and embodied. Theorists question whether merely advocating for the value of such devalued traits can topple existing gender hierarchies. More recent critics have argued for unplugging qualities from gender altogether and have discussed whether “woman” is even a legitimate category. Some, such as Judith Butler, deconstruct gender itself. Using this as a springboard, younger theorists have brought us into the complex, rich fields of gender studies and queer theory, entering most universities by the 1990s.

As these debates rage on among readers, scholars, and writers, feminist literary theory continues to call attention to the ways our socialized biases toward traditional masculinity-as-authority has erased women from literary history, impacted the opportunities of women writers, as well as encouraged authors of all genders to deploy woman characters in support of misogynistic worldviews. Questioning gender, how we form our ideas about it, and the consequences of that remains a productive enterprise for feminist critics, enriching discourse about the novel, the canon, and authors’ negotiation with their own socialization.

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For a deeper dive into feminist theory and literary criticism, here are a few texts to get you started:

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

“A Black Feminist Statement” by The Combahee River Collective (1977)

A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter (1977)

The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979)

Borderlands: La Frontera Gloria Anzaldúa (1987)

 “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism” by Annette Kolodny (1980)

And for an overview of literary theory generally, check out that class nobody likes in my Accessible MFA.

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I’m Still Not Here

At 14, I read the entire Bible, front to back. When I attended sleepovers, other kids brought plastic clamshells of eye shadow or bottles of nail polish, clattering in their backpacks like marbles. I brought my leather-bound Bible. I was always the last to fall asleep. As my friends dropped off into unconsciousness and heavy snores (it was always the girls you least expected who snored the loudest), I unzipped my bag and pulled out the Bible, heavy and reassuring on my lap, as I listened to the creaks and groans of a strange house with its unfamiliar ghosts.

The incantatory rhythms of the King James Bible comforted me, mostly. So many of the collected works of God Almighty feature reassuring promises of order and justice and everything being right with the world. The message: just trust, just have faith, and everything will turn out just fine. You’ll get your happy ending. But then I came to the Book of Job, and I had some questions.

Like most children, I’d been raised on the just-world hypothesis, a bias that leaves us believing all events are caused by our individual actions. Think of it as total and complete faith that God is good, that everything happens for a reason, and that we all get what we deserve.

Except all a perceptive child has to do is look around to know it isn’t true. Abused children know this best of all, deep in the aching marrow of our bones. Some of the kindest people in my life were those who had suffered—and went on suffering—the most. Some of the cruelest had excellent health, sterling reputations, wealth, and vast social support networks. Our actions rarely lead to proportionate, fitting reactions (or results). And when they do, it turns out to be an awful lot of luck: the luck of genetics, of birth, of who we know, of what street we drove down on a particular day at a particular time.

So Job then.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

In the Book of Job, a good man suffers because God makes him suffer.

There are many interpretations as to why. Perhaps God is testing Job or refining him, or maybe Job is a Christ figure (a dress rehearsal for what God will later do to Christ), or a reminder that God’s purpose is not solely about human happiness. I’m not sure I care. There is just the simple fact that it’s ethically wrong for a supreme being to burn ants with a magnifying glass.

At 14, I was horrified and a little ashamed. This was the god I spoke to? Prayed to? Worshipped? What an asshole.

Job’s God was the spitting image of the neighborhood boys I hated most.

It was the first time I started to think maybe god wasn’t worth my time after all.

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Bad things happen to good people because things simply happen. To all of us, good, bad, and in-between.

As a Zen Buddhist, that’s what I believe now. And that belief not only allows me to have compassion for those who suffer, to not presume I know why they’re suffering—it also doesn’t provide an easy target for my rage when everything falls apart.

The just-world hypothesis makes life simple.

But life isn’t simple.

Sometimes, things just happen.

On Christmas Eve, our vet sent us to the nearest animal hospital with our elderly cat, Luna. Her chest had filled with fluid, and if she was to survive, she needed a chest tap. The hospital veterinarians diagnosed her with congestive heart failure and pleural effusion. For two weeks, we did everything we could to keep her going. For two weeks, no one could fit us into their schedule or give us a prognosis. And then she stopped eating. She told us what the vets wouldn’t. She had arrived at the end. Her kidney failure, heart failure, hyperthyroidism all met in the confluence that is death, and we took her to the vet one final time to euthanize her.

Two weeks after that I turned 40.

Two weeks after that my husband and I learned that he had been misdiagnosed. An orthopedist’s reckless dismissal of his severe pain and swelling had endangered his life. One day, his diagnosis was that of a joint injury accompanied by unexplained severe pain and swelling of the leg. The next day he was diagnosed with Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). And the day after that, he was diagnosed with a Pulmonary Embolism (PE) and rushed to the ER where he was hospitalized, medicated, and monitored.

A nurse practitioner saved his life, with curiosity, with doubt. An orthopedist nearly killed him with certainty.

But we still have three to six months to go, months that involve blood thinners and their accompanying risks. Months of tests and specialists and exams and scans to ascertain why so many clots. Months that may mean surgery, fatigue, weakness, and possible long-term symptoms that never resolve. Months while we wait to see if his body will reabsorb the clots, months when his chance of death is still higher than it was before all this happened.

Months of uncertainty.

I’m trying to write all this as clinically, as objectively, as coolly as I can.

I am trying to limit how many people witness my nervous breakdowns.

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Here’s the thing. There are resources out there for any one of these things. There are books about coping before and after surgery. There are books about pulmonary embolism. There are books about grieving a beloved pet. There are books about chronic migraines and books about PTSD (two conditions I live with). There are books about facing our mortality and embracing whatever life ends up being, however short or long, however difficult or comfortable. There are books about each one of these things.

I haven’t yet found a book about all of them.

How do I manage chronic migraines when the fear that my husband won’t be alive in the morning prevents me from sleeping? How do I continue grieving Luna’s death when I’m already overwhelmed with selfish fears over what I will do if my husband dies? When does wise vigilance toward a loved one with a life-threatening condition become hypervigilance? How do I savor the moments with him when I worry each might be the last?

I have always told myself there’s only so much a person can cope with.

This turns out not to be true.

We can cope with just about anything. I should’ve known that already, from the many refugees and ex-POWs and human trafficking survivors I once had the honor to serve at a local college.

But we can’t feel everything. The reality is there’s only so much a person can feel. And then things start to break down. The body, the mind. We shut down. We put one foot in front of the other. We dissociate.

We cope.

Cope, a verb that entered English from the French verb couper. To cut. It is an inherently violent thing. To cope is to cut off everything that is unnecessary. To cut off the head of the snake. To cut off the problem. And sometimes the only thing we can control is our feelings. So they get cut.

Edited out.

I’ve been in this space before. I’ve spent most of my life here. You get through it. And if you’re lucky, you come out the other side. Only then can you look back and feel whatever there wasn’t space to feel in the thick of it.

And thus we survive, numb and raw at the same time, dissociated and pumped up on adrenaline. Until it’s safe to feel again.

The thing about PTSD symptoms is that during a trauma they are not a disorder. In the midst of life-endangering experiences, they are adaptive. In the face of threats to our lives, they help us get through.

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Luna and Josh

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Deconstruction: A Literary Theory

Well, look, it’s Christmas Eve, and I haven’t got a lot for you today. So how about a short recap of deconstruction? Pour yourself a mug of eggnog, drop in an ounce of Maker’s Mark, and sprinkle with cinnamon. Bartender recommended from yours truly (it was another life). If you like mind games (the good kind), here’s another peek at what I learned last semester.

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Developed by Jacques Derrida, deconstruction asserts that meaning can never be final or absolute. Although ideas require an organizing structure, such structures are imposed externally, centering certain ideas or truths while marginalizing others. This supports existing hegemonies, reinforcing existing systems of power. And while a freeplay of ideas is possible within the structure, it is nonetheless limited by it.

Even language itself is problematic because the surface appearances of words often contradict their deeper meanings and origins. For example, the signifier (word) “t-r-e-e” and the signified meaning of what a tree actually is are two separate things that are arbitrarily associated. Right? Derrida says wrong.

Dichotomizing a signifier and signified creates an illusion of difference when in fact they influence each other and co-exist. Binaries themselves are interdependent, unable to exist one without the other. As Judith Butler points out, what can “straight” possibly mean if there is no “gay” to contrast it with? Deconstruction advocates that we interrogate what we think we know, not so we may replace it with more accurate knowledge, but so that we can become aware of the gaps in what we have mistaken for certainty.

I dig this. I don’t believe in certainty, and I distrust those who peddle it.

The uncertainty inherent to all knowledge is best exemplified in language because it unfolds through time. Texts, sentences, and even speech are signifying chains where each subsequent meaning bleeds into the previous as well as the next. This destabilizes meaning and language, rendering a definite truth to be unknowable.

The deconstructionists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest that writers should create books that can be read in any order, each section with its own “intrinsic value” so that it echoes nature where multiplicity, not unity, is the primary value (pp. 1379, 1376). Ultimately, deconstruction proposes that meanings are necessarily multiple, interconnected, and decentralized, “coming and going rather than finishing” (Deleuze & Guattari, p. 1382).

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So what can we take from all this?

No one should be too sure what’s going on. There’s so much we can’t ever know. There will always be gaps. The simplest example is another human being. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known them. You can never, ever know what their experience actually is. If you think you know all there is to know, you’re not paying attention.

And what lesson can we take away as writers?

Well, this is why so many novels have multiple narrators, multiple plotlines, multiple voices. We live in an age where we understand that knowledge is never complete, understanding is never finished. To pretend we can represent a life or a person as they are in their entirety, even a fictional one, is to cheat. It is to misrepresent. It is the worst sin of all for an artist: it is to be false.

Human beings, and most compelling characters, are so much richer and more complicated than that.

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If you enjoyed that little peek at literary theory, check out the Accessible MFA where you can access the literary theory syllabus for free. It’s otherwise known as that MFA class nobody likes. And don’t forget to get a free account at JSTOR where you can read more of this stuff for fun (just leave the “university” blank)!

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Why I Don’t Have a Therapist…For Now

Don’t get me wrong. Therapists are a vital resource, and everyone should have affordable, easy access. From talk therapy to CBT to prescriptions and support groups, we all deserve to live in a world where whatever works for us is available and affordable. I’ve turned to therapists in the past, and they’ve been a huge help. I will certainly step into a licensed therapist’s office again.

But let’s face it. This has not been a normal year. We’ve had to get creative in order to access our healthcare, especially those of us at higher risk for severe COVID. And mental healthcare is no different. We are all living in the midst of multiple collective traumas right now, particularly the pandemic and the struggle to end police brutality against Black Americans. So many of us, especially those of us who are BIPOC and/or disabled, need extra support right now. But we also need support that’s safe and accessible. And it should be helping us cope, not piling on more stress.

For now, I’ve opted for a workbook instead of online therapy.

We’ll see, once I’m back in therapy, how this choice looks in the rearview mirror.

Here are the top five reasons why I’m going it alone, for the moment.

1. Trust is a real issue for me.

This is an issue for a lot of us with PTSD, and many other mental health disorders. As anyone who’s done therapy knows, the search for the right therapist can itself be stressful. I’ve never before worked with a therapist specializing in trauma and PTSD, so it’s going to take some shopping around. Which can feel a lot like dating. It takes time, it involves large helpings of frustration and disappointment, and it’s not nearly as fun as rom-coms lead you to believe.

Added to that, there’s the stress and anxiety of doing therapy over Zoom calls and online chats, with someone I’ve never met before.

No, thank you.

That’s why I’ve opted for a year with a workbook written by three specialists. I do need treatment, but it’s not a mental health emergency (yet). And like everybody else, my bandwidth is limited right now. I know that one or two bad interactions with the wrong therapist could push me away from treatment for years. It’s more urgent that I have some guidance from licensed professionals than that it be in-person, synchronous guidance.

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2. Taking control of my own healing process helps me develop a sense of agency and empowerment.

I also don’t understand what the plan is with most therapists. Out of the three counselors I’ve seen, only one (who specialized in CBT treatment for insomnia) laid out a clear plan for me. I could track my progress. I knew where we were heading. This left me feeling that I had some control over my treatment.

Talk therapists, on the other hand, tend to be lovely people dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and nurturing everyone who steps into their office. But their plan has generally seemed to be Let her talk as long as she needs, about anything she wants, and then I’ll bill her for it.

This works great for many people. That’s wonderful. But for me, this is not a treatment plan.

Of course I’m not a therapist, so I don’t know if maybe there was a plan. As I’ve learned from earning a master’s in education, then re-entering the classroom, something that looks easy and simple on the surface can have lots of strategy and research backing it up. So I know they probably had a plan. They just didn’t communicate it to me.

And therein lies the problem.

I don’t enjoy strolling down Memory Lane with a total stranger, blubbering about my feelings and crying until my eyes are red, which triggers more migraines. I will do it. But I have to feel absolutely sure there’s a goal, an end point, that all this will move me closer to.

Trauma leaves all of us face-to-face with the fact that there’s a whole hell of a lot we have zero control over. Regaining a sense of control over specific things is beneficial to trauma survivors. And I want control over my care. I’m not someone who can just trust the pain is going to magically transform into unicorns and rainbows when I talk about it for the 53rd time. Please refer to #1.

Which also brings me to #3.

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3. Therapists, despite the best of intentions, can sometimes function as gatekeepers to essential knowledge.

The current workbook I’m going through (The Cognitive Behavioral Coping Skills Workbook for PTSD) has equipped me with a much wider repertoire of tools than any therapist has yet. And it was written by three therapists. So they have the knowledge. But in sessions, they have to pick and choose what to share and when. And unfortunately, this doesn’t always align with what we need. And we can’t tell them that. After all, we can’t ask for what we don’t know exists. Even when we can, there’s no guarantee they’ll listen and actually focus on the type of therapy we prefer.

After attending the annual Migraine World Summit online and learning research has found that CBT can dramatically improve quality of life for those with chronic migraine, I signed up for a free CBT program also online, MyCompass. It worked wonders for my depression after becoming chronic and having to quit my jobs, miss my graduation from grad school, and live most of my life in a 700-square-foot apartment. I stopped wanting to kill myself. I started getting into disability studies and seeing the value in my own life, no matter how limited it was.

But when I went to my next therapist and specifically requested CBT, telling her how much it had helped, I got nothing but talk therapy. Maybe she thought it was best for me. Maybe there was CBT involved, but she didn’t point it out to me. I’ll never know. I did know it wasn’t going to work out over the long term, so I ended treatment with her after a month or so.

One of the things I love about this workbook is it lays everything out in the introduction, then encourages the reader to choose for themselves where to go first. I appreciate that recognition that I know what I need. Sometimes patients really do know best.

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4. I’m awesome at doing self-directed stuff consistently.

I’ve done enough online teaching and tutoring to know that not everyone is. And that’s okay. The key is to know our own strengths and use them to the fullest. Successful self-management is just a combination of temperament, intrapersonal intelligence, and skill set. Other people are incredible at off-the-cuff spoken communication and interpersonal intelligence. Talk therapy, for them, may be a godsend. What really matters in anything health-related, from brushing our teeth to getting in exercise, is consistency. We benefit most from the habits we can sustain.

For me? I’m good at planning. I’m good at scheduling. I’m amazing at long-term plans (five years or more). I stick to things. And I revise those plans as things change (hello, chronic migraines). I’m great at evaluating sources because I’ve had the privilege of a college education. I focus on workbooks and tools developed by experts, with lots of research backing them up. Then, I commit.

Every Sunday at 4 p.m., I spend 50 minutes reading the workbook, reviewing the worksheets I filled out that week, journaling about how my exposure therapy went, and taking the PTSD assessment on my PTSD Coach app. Believe it or not, this helps me. There’s no chance it would help everyone. We’re all different. But I’m an athlete by training, so it helps me to look at my mental fitness the same way I do my physical fitness. Practice, track progress, review goals, recalibrate. I’m perfectly aware this probably isn’t going to give me a full recovery from PTSD. But until I’m ready to begin the long road to the right therapist, it helps me manage my symptoms.

5. Chronic illness makes it stressful to commit to weekly appointments for which I’ll be charged if I miss them.

As my friends and in-laws know, I can’t even make Zoom calls if the migraines are really bad. My last round of in-person therapy involved a 45-minute bus ride each way, which often left me with a migraine just in time to start work. This can negatively impact my income, which also ratchets up my stress and anxiety. It’s not always a good trade-off.

Sometimes, I will simply miss therapy because I have no choice. As my fellow migraineurs know, we can’t know we’re going to have a migraine until we have one. That means same-day cancellations. Which means, in most therapy practices, a full charge for a missed appointment, which insurance won’t cover.

In a perfect world with a perfect me, I’d step into a new therapist’s office and immediately disclose my chronic illness and the inevitability that I’ll have to miss appointments, which I can’t afford charges for—but I haven’t been able to do this yet. I believe I will one day. But such an assertive declaration of my situation and my needs is way beyond where I am.

So in the meantime, I’m doing my therapy at home with a workbook and an app. And that Sunday at 4 p.m. routine? Honestly? It changes when migraines require it to. No questions asked. No advance notice needed.

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Like I said, this is something of an experiment. I am by no means recommending anyone else try this or suggesting that it’s even the best way to approach mental health care during a pandemic. All I’m saying is, for now, I’ve found something that works for me. It won’t work forever. Like all therapies, one day it too will come to an end. It will be time for the next chapter. But this year, I’m so grateful for the app and the workbook that have helped me look after my mental health.

Entire teams of developers, therapists, researchers, and editors have created these tools and helped make them accessible to me and thousands of others. My gratitude for their work is infinite. I’ll never meet them, but they’re part of my journey, too. And their contribution to my recovery counts every bit as much as the therapist I’ll one day sit across from. We can all touch the lives of people we’ll never know. So whatever good you’re sending out into the world right now, when so many are suffering, thank you. Your kindness matters. Your contribution counts.

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*I am not a therapist or treatment provider and am only recounting my personal experience of PTSD and its treatment. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, licensed therapist, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding PTSD or any other mental health disorder.