Sunday, April 9, 2017

Breaking Down the Labyrinth

For me, Pesach prep is a bit like everything else--the anticipation is nearly always worse than the reality. For weeks, I am an anxious mess as I stare down the monstrous amounts of cleaning and cooking I need to do, and then the actual day comes, and I wake up at 7 am, bang it out, and am done by 3 pm. I do recognize that in this one particular instance, living alone in a small city apartment is a blessing, because the cleaning is manageable and I am cooking for one. Bottom line--I'm officially Kosher L'Pesach with time left in the afternoon to do some writing, so I feel pretty accomplished. The OU would probably find fault with a few things, but lately I've found fault with a few of their things, so I guess that makes us even.

Despite all the frenzy (or perhaps partly because of it; it's such a classic cultural ritual), I really enjoy Pesach. I appreciate that it forces me to do things differently--staying up late, eating different foods, etc. But what I really love doing during this holiday, especially in the days leading up to it, is thinking about freedom and what it means for me, personally.

In the conventional sense, I have never been an unfree person. I had the good fortune to be born in the United States to a middle-class family who never needed to worry about money. Though I'm in a religious minority in this country, I'm also in the racial majority, which has bestowed upon me benefits I would be remiss not to mention. I have never been tied down to unfavorable circumstances by debt, and though my finances do not afford me every option, I have enough decent options that I can build a good life for myself. In short, I have been very, very lucky, both as an accident of birth and as the result of planning and hard work.

But there has always been something that has bound me. In childhood, it was OCD; I could not go to bed without making two trips around my bedroom to touch certain objects, and my stuffed animals had to be arranged just so on my bed or it physically didn't feel right. I played endless games of "magical thinking," telling myself that I would do well on a test if I could throw a small object in the air and catch it with one hand three times in a row, three times (also, I loved the number 3). If I was out for a walk and stepped on a manhole cover with one foot, I had to step on it with the other foot, as well. I was never sure what, exactly, would happen if I didn't adhere to these rituals, but I had a firm (if vague) sense that it would be "something bad."

In college, some of those compulsions lessened because I was physically removed from the environment where they took place (my childhood bedroom), but that was okay because I found something better: compulsive exercise and obsessive dieting. Anorexia was the ultimate ritual. Every morning, at the same hour every day, I went to the gym. I did the same machines, in the same order, for the same amounts of time (or a little more, but never a little less). I ran the same distance every day (or a little longer, but never a little shorter). It was mind-numbingly boring, but OMG THE ENDORPHINS. Then, there was eating. I ate at the same times every day, picking from the same narrow variety of foods, counting out numbers of things to make sure my intake was exactly the same as the day before (or a little less, but never a little more). Of course, I had rituals WITH food, too--precise methods of eating from which I could not deviate. By the middle of freshman year, I had come up with a system that I had fully mastered. It did not occur to me that the system had mastered me.


I recently read a book of memoirs called, Abandon Me, by an author named Melissa Febos. I actually don't think I can adequately describe this book or its effect on me, except to say that it is, hands down, the most powerful memoir I have ever read. I got it from the library and it was a "speed read" so there were no renewals, and on the day I had to return it I went to my local bookstore and bought my own copy, even though it just came out and is only in hardcover, and I have a somewhat strict (if informal) policy against paying "extra" for hardcover books. But this book, I needed to own, and immediately.

My favorite essay is the one called, "Labyrinths," in which Melissa outlines her own addiction to heroin and her recovery from it, as well as her brother's battle with bipolar disorder. The title of the essay is a reference to the 1986 movie, "Labyrinth," in which a teenage girl named Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly) wishes for her baby brother to disappear--and then he does; he gets taken away by Jareth, the Goblin King (played by David Bowie), who stores the baby in a castle in the center of a labyrinth. Sarah has 13 hours to solve the labyrinth and rescue her brother.

Sarah enters the labyrinth and begins to run. She falls into many distracting traps designed to throw her off course; in actuality, like all labyrinths, it is only one path and will inevitably lead to the center, so all Sarah needs to do is follow it. But, as Melissa Febos writes:

Throughout the film Jareth tries to convince her that the labyrinth is too difficult to solve. He drugs her. He sends creatures to mislead her. He promises her that happiness is in succumbing to his fantasy and abandoning her quest to solve the labyrinth.

"I ask for so little," he pleads. "Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want."

When I read that, I thought of how similar Jareth's voice sounded to that of my eating disorder. When I fell into anorexia's labyrinth, my list of "everything I wanted" was simple: I wanted to fill the empty space within me. Anorexia promised me that if I allowed it to rule me, it would fulfill my wish by simply erasing my need altogether. And so, I gave in. The labyrinth seemed too complicated, the center too elusive, and so I allowed myself to be swallowed up. The truth is that I didn't even know I was trapped--I still felt like I was in control.

Recognizing the structural layout of my labyrinth was the key to its undoing. Once I knew that the voice of my captor was lying, that I would never be free unless I broke down the walls myself, I started to come back to life. But there were so many distractions. I had to learn to recognize my own anxieties and compulsions for what they were, and to be in tune to the mental and physical cues that signaled I was starting to give in to the eating disorder. Let me say: it was a complicated f*cking labyrinth. But I used my tools: I went to treatment, I participated in therapy, I took my medication. And I found the center, where my self was waiting.

My favorite excerpt from Melissa's essay is in the picture below:
I love it because this is the key to everything, this realization that our addictions, our obsessive and compulsive belief systems, are nothing more than captors trying to take away our power. They will promise us everything, but leave us with nothing. The truth is that we hold the power. The minute we even entertain the idea that we might not have to listen, the labyrinth weakens a little bit. And as soon as we are willing to say the word, "No," even if we just whisper it, that is the moment that we start to get back our freedom. The labyrinth cannot withstand a lack of worship, and when we refuse to fear it any longer, it will begin to crumble.

Sometimes, it can seem tempting to go back to the labyrinth, with its small enclosed spaces and clear boundaries. But it will never again be as satisfying as it once was, because it will have lost its luster. Every time I went back to anorexia after my first round of treatment, I found that I had too much knowledge for it to stick for long--I knew what I was doing, I recognized the irrationalities, and I knew what I should be doing instead. More importantly, I understood what my eating disorder had taken from me, and was still taking from me, and that made me angry. The day I decided that I was simply tired of this particular labyrinth, that it held nothing of value for me anymore, was the day I left treatment and never went back.

Putting my life back together and growing into a functional adult has been a lot of work; it isn't always fun and sometimes makes me cry. But since I left the labyrinth, my life has never again felt as empty as it did when I was held captive by the eating disorder that promised to fill me. I make my own choices, now. I have space for relationships, I have energy and passion for a demanding profession, and I actually have emotions, which are quite possibly the most wondrous part of the whole operation.

Freedom is everything.

And so, my Pesach wish for each of us is that we recognize the labyrinths that hold us captive, and that we start to deconstruct them, brick by brick. Freedom is out there, and in it our true selves are waiting, as they have always been.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Beautifully Broken
When I started this blog, I tried hard to publish something at least every other week...I think because I had so much to say, and sharing it felt so urgent. Clearly, I have gotten away from that level of frequency, and it's not that I haven't had anything to write's more that I haven't been able to find the most effective way to write about what has been going on for me. I feel as though I need a degree of separation from things in order to write about them clearly, and that separation hasn't happened yet, so the words haven't come. I say this not as an apology for not writing, but more as an explanation as to why I haven't been on the blog as much lately.

But then, last weekend happened, and words started to come.

I had the privilege of attending a workshop led by the amazing Laura McKowen, whom I have raved about quite a bit on this blog, and Holly Whitaker, whom I have talked about less but who is no less fabulous. These two women do incredibly important work in the recovery world; both are in sobriety and are also in recovery from eating disorders. They are impassioned writers, speakers, and yoga people, and I am a little bit (or a lot) of a groupie, so I took my yoga-ambivalent self to a yoga studio and practiced yoga for four hours, just to learn from them. (Okay, there was writing involved, too, which is more my jam.)

The title of the workshop was, "Never Not Broken," and it centered on the premise that we have each been broken open by various life situations, and we will bear those cracks for the rest of our lives...but instead of weakening us, our brokenness makes us stronger and wiser. I was attracted to this idea because I view my life into very clearly divided "before" and "after" segments: "before," being before I developed an eating disorder my freshman year in college, and "after," being everything after my last hospitalization in 2007 (I call the in-between years, "the mess").  I visualize "before" and "after" through two photographs that sit on my parents' coffee table--one of me as a senior in high school, the other of me graduating from college. When I look at my high school senior self, I see her smile as genuine, the gleam in her eyes as a sign of her full life and endless hope, for she has no idea what's coming. The photo of me as a college senior, I hate. I look at that version of myself and I know my smile is fake; my eyes masking how trapped I felt in my body, in my mind, in my misery. For most of my time in recovery, I have wanted desperately to get back to the way I was "before." Why can I not be happy anymore? I often wonder. Instead, I'm stuck being this broken thing. Put back together, yes, but still cracked in ways that I haven't figured out how to repair.

Before the workshop started, I anticipated that I would spend most of it brooding over all the broken, shattered parts of me, and maybe I would even cry, which would be a huge breach of my "no public displays of emotion" rule. But somewhere around hour three, a weird thing happened. We were journaling in response to the prompt, "What do You Want?" and I realized that although there are still some things I desire but have yet to achieve, I actually have a lot of good things in my life. I have the most fulfilling job I could ask for; I get to do what I love and I know I am making a difference. My "work family" is close-knit and supportive. Through my Jewish education, I have made dear friends in Israel who nurture me in ways that no one else does. My parents and I have great relationships with each other. I am living on my own and paying my own bills, driving around in a car that I own, with enough money saved to allow me to plan for a future child. All told, I am actually not doing too badly. And admitting this was new to me, because my usual line of thinking is to focus on the negative...but sitting there in that workshop, I was able to really see all the vitality I have built into my life, and that I have achieved successes that were absolutely not possible a decade ago.

I pondered this as I lay on my mat, listening to Laura's calm voice easing us into the final restorative pose. Then, from the speakers, I heard familiar tune begin to play...the lyrics came:

I heard there was a sacred chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord...

Yup. She played Hallelujah. She played LEONARD COHEN.

There I was on my mat, with a big old grin on my face, because THIS WAS A WORKSHOP ABOUT BROKENNESS AND SHE'S PLAYING LEONARD F**KING COHEN (no disrespect intended).

Leonard Cohen, the iconic Jewish singer and songwriter, penned the following lyrics about human brokenness:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We are all broken in some ways, some of us more than others, but we all bear at least a few cracks bequeathed upon us by the world and our own psyches. The challenge, as with any perceived weakness, is to learn how to leverage it to one's advantage. I know that I, personally, have gained enormous insight into myself and others from having gone through everything I've endured, much of which was excruciatingly painful while it was happening. I might not ever return to that innocent teenager I was before the eating disorder, the one who grins out from that high school senior photo. But I am damn sure more in tune with my emotions, more able to empathize with others, and more able to manage the demands of the world than she ever was. It was a trade I was never asked if I wanted to make; I was never given the choice of opting out.  Brokenness can't work that way, because who would ever elect to be split open? Not I. But there were lessons I needed to learn, that I am still learning, and so I was given the pain and the blessing of being broken to my core.

At the end of the workshop, Laura and Holly herded all 50 of us into a circle, and we did the "go-around": say your name, where you're from, and one thing you're taking away from today. Every single person in the room had been touched by addiction, and many were in the beginning stages of recovery. Some people shared from a place of strength, others from a place of insecurity, but the underlying current was vulnerability.

Vulnerability sounded like the man who had just begun sobriety and said, "I'm on day 28."

It was the woman who ventured, "I'm an alcoholic. I've never actually said that before."

It came through in the voice of a young woman who shared about her suicide attempt.

It was the person who admitted, "I don't actually know anyone in recovery."

And as I sat there listening and waiting for my turn, I could see my self of ten years ago mirrored back to me in my fellow participants' words. I remembered the first time I ever said, "I am anorexic," and how exhilarating was that release, and how terrifying the admission. I remembered my "day one" in my first treatment program, where I finally found comfort among other people who understood the way my brain functioned and the twisted logic by which I lived my life. I remembered meeting my first recovered person, and how powerful that encounter was. I remembered all the times I had gone to bed, wishing that I would sleep forever. And I knew, sitting in that circle, that I wasn't there anymore. I had done the work and was still doing it. And I had a lot to be proud of.

The truth is, I still go through periods of depression, where I feel like I honestly might not make it through the day. I sometimes still find that when I am stressed or in periods of transition, my first instinct is to micro-manage my food as a release. I am socially anxious, extremely introverted, and yet often feel starved for genuine connection. All of those cracks are real. But I know how to navigate them and to avoid the traps they set. I prefer to view my current self as one who has been made stronger for having been broken.

The Japanese have a practice of putting broken pottery back together by sealing the cracks with lacquer mixed with gold dust. The artist Barbara Bloom explains:
"When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something's suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful." 

That's us, lovelies. Never not broken. And growing more beautiful all the time.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why We Need Setbacks

I'm writing my first post of 2017, twenty-six days late. I've been thinking about blogging a lot, but something has been in the way--call it writer's block, or apathy, or fatigue, or maybe a combination of those--whatever it is, it has loomed in my brain, imposing and opaque, blocking all my attempts to get any thoughts into writing.

But two days ago, a dear friend messaged me and said, "Any reason you haven't been blogging? I miss your posts!" At which point, I thought, "Oh...I guess people do read it." And then I went through the motions of going online and looking up what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has to say about this week's parasha, because when I'm coming up dry on inspiration, he's pretty much my go-to.

I'll get to Rabbi Sacks in a minute, but I think it's clear what the real lesson is here: friends are our best weapon in overcoming inertia.

So.  In last week's parasha, Hashem speaks to Moses and tells him that he is being tasked with leading the Jewish people out of Egypt. Moses protests, insisting he's not up for the task, but G-d wins the argument because, you know, He's G-d. So Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and plead their case, but it doesn't go well--Pharaoh retaliates by forcing the Israelites to not only make their quota of bricks, but now also gather their own straw for the bricks. The Israelites then basically turn against Moses and Aaron, accusing the two men of making their burden even harder to bear.

This week, Moses and Aaron begin bringing G-d's plagues to Pharaoh, but each one fails to do what it is intended to do: convince Pharaoh to let the Jews go. Moses does absolutely everything he can, and still, no freedom. But all along, Hashem reassures Moses that the Jewish people will go free, if Moses can just see the process through.

Rabbi Sacks teaches that the key take-away here is this: the greatest leaders are plagued by significant setbacks, but still manage to rise. This is certainly true of Moses, and is also true of successful leaders in many other fields--politics, science, the arts, business. And if this is true of our leaders, who are arguably among our best and brightest, how much more so is it true of us "regular people"? We are going to encounter setbacks, some of which will be pretty major. The key, as many a motivational speaker has proclaimed, is to not stay down, but rather to use the challenge to make ourselves stronger.

I have been in recovery for 12 years and cannot even begin to count my setbacks. The severe ones landed me in psychiatric hospitals and day programs. But there were also dozens of tiny bumps in the road--a missed snack, a forbidden walk, a resurrection of an arbitrary food rule--that I could (and sometimes did) brush off as insignificant, but that were really symptoms of a larger lapse in my recovery mindset. Any setbacks, large or small, can be demoralizing because they spark self-criticism and self-doubt: I am not really in recovery. I'm actually not doing well at all. I am such a loser for still having a hard time with this. (At least, that's my soundtrack. Maybe yours is different, but I suspect there are some similar lines.)

The key, for me, has been to allow myself a few negative thoughts but then start to take a deeper look at what is going on when I hit a bump. Am I anxious about something? Am I feeling vulnerable? Is there a particular stressor in my life and I'm using an old coping mechanism to deal with it? Once I start taking that careful look and talking about it with my people, I can actually deal with the underlying issue and avoid falling back into the eating disorder. And that whole process--encountering struggle, examining it, and adjusting for it--makes me stronger.

Rabbi Sacks cites a letter written by Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner to one of his students who was discouraged after repeatedly failing to master a piece of Talmud. Rabbi Hutner wrote:

Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the good inclination, but in the battle of the good inclination...The wisest of men said, "A righteous man falls seven times, but rises again." Fools believe that the intent of the verse is to teach us that the righteous man falls seven times and, despite this, he rises. But the knowledgeable are aware that the essence of the righteous man's rising again is because of his seven falls.

The line I keep coming back to is: your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the good inclination, but in the battle of the good inclination.

Brilliant, right?

We are primed for struggle, and that is what strengthens us. We cannot become great without it. We can't recover without it.  That's not to say that we don't also need times without struggle, but our souls get their juice from being squeezed a little bit. That's where we're rooted, and it's from where we grow.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Aftermath

Let me just start by saying, feelings are exhausting. Nod if you're with me.

If you read my last post, then you know I was hit pretty hard by the news of the suicide of one of my former students. The process of...well...processing this has been kind of surreal and unlike anything I've experienced before, thank G-d.

First, there was the wake. I went with some teachers from my school who also had this child in class, and I will say that I am very, very glad that wakes are not part of the Jewish tradition. It was excruciating, bearing witness to so much pain. But it was also kind of lovely in the sense that it was a beautiful tribute to this child and it was clear the family had so much support from the community. I met one of her current high school teachers, and we had a long, comforting conversation in which we shared memories of her and talked about how we were coping. Still, I don't imagine I will get images from that wake out of my head any time soon.

All of this has brought up a number of interesting parallels to themes of my recovery. Here are the two big ones:

1) I am not entitled to my feelings.
I mean, this girl was my student seven years ago and I hadn't seen her in five. Do I even get to call this, "grief?" Am I entitled to that emotion? These questions echo refrains that came up time and time again when I was struggling with my eating disorder:

a) I'm not sick enough to really "qualify." 
b) Why am I so miserable when I have a lot of good things in my life? 
c) Nothing terrible has ever happened to me. Am I even entitled to have an eating disorder, or am I making it all up?

Sound familiar?

(In case you are wondering similar things about yourself, the answers are: a) Everyone says this, and you do qualify; b) That's depression, baby; c) YES you can have an eating disorder without a history of trauma.

What I've decided in this case is that, yes, I am entitled to grieve this student. I call my students, "my kids," and they are my kids forever--so when something bad happens to one of them, even if I haven't seen her in a few years, my heart is going to break a little bit. My grief will look different than that of the teachers who taught her this year, but it's still real and I have to let it happen.

2) Black-and-white thinking
Oh, I am in this. As a former Queen of Black-and-White Thinking, this should not surprise me at all. But I will admit that I was a little taken aback by the train of thought I went down the day after the wake:

What I do to nurture my students is so insignificant. It's not going to help them later when they're really struggling. And it won't matter anyway if they kill themselves.

Now, here's the thing: I KNOW this is not rational. I know it doesn't make any kind of sense to just throw in the towel and say, "Well, I'm not teaching anymore because I can't fix all their problems." I GET IT. And yet. There are still days when I look at my current students and I just feel sad, because I can't predict what is in store for them as they get older and therefore I can't prevent their future pain. I look at them and I feel exhausted, because I can give them everything I have and it might still not be enough. But what choice do I have, really, other than to keep giving? Giving them my whole heart is the only way I know how to do my job.

Sometimes, when I reflect on my recovery and dwell on a particular area where I still need work, I will suddenly develop tunnel vision and only be able to see that way in which I am not 100% "fixed." I then start thinking, "I haven't made any progress at all," or, "I'm still really sick." In my rational moments I know that neither of those statements is true. I have made a TON of progress, and I am NOT really sick, or even close to really sick. I just still have things to work on. But if I only focus on my deficits, I can't move forward.

And if I only focus on the ways in which I can't help my students, I won't be able to be present for the ways in which I can.

One of my favorite Jewish quotes comes from Pirkei Avot, and I have been thinking of it often as I wade through this grieving process:

"He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it." (Pirkei Avot chapter 2)

That's how I am thinking about teaching. I am not going to be with my students for their whole educational careers; I will not be able to coach them through every crisis that comes their way; I won't be there to pull them out of the dark places the mind can go in adolescence and beyond. But I can--and I must--give them a strong foundation. I can teach them how to persevere, how to manage their feelings, and how to value themselves. I can show them love and hope that it sticks with them. If I make their world bright and safe while I have them, that is the most important thing I can do.

In an effort to remind myself of this, I spent some time before Shabbat going through my "Teacher Treasure Box." I found a number of adorable notes from my student who died, which I am using as a warm and positive way to remember her. But I also found this valentine from another student, which brought tears to my eyes and reminded me exactly why I do this job:

That child moved to another state the year after I had her, and I don't know how she's doing or where life has taken her. But I know I helped her love school when she was in third grade. I shined some light into her life and made her feel loved. What more can I hope for, other than that?

I'm not going to complete the task. But I'm going to continue doing my part.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Unthinkable

I can't think of a good intro for this, so I'm just going to dive in.

Today, I found out from my principal that one of my former students committed suicide last night.

I had this student in third grade seven years ago. She was a total delight. She was all sunshine, smiles, and giggles; she was smart as a whip and just as hardworking. I adored her and I never worried about her. I've had a habit since I started teaching: every year I study my students and try to predict who among them is at risk for a mental health crisis in the future. You might think that's a morbid way to view one's students, but to me it just makes sense. As the November 7 edition of TIME Magazine points out, in 2015 approximately 3 million teenagers ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode, and 6.3 million teens had an anxiety disorder. And that's just depression and anxiety, people. Statistically speaking, some of my students are going to wind up in those percentages. Maybe if I can identify them early, I've always thought, I can start the process of getting them the support they need.

This child didn't even make the bottom of my Mental Health Alert List list the year that she was in my class. If there were early warning signs, I totally missed them. Her death was one I never saw coming.

After my principal pulled me aside to tell me the news, I went back into my classroom and watched my current crop of students chattering and swarming about as they lined up for lunch. I had been at a professional development training that morning, so this was the first I had seen of my kids all day. A few came up to me, presenting me with their precious smiling faces and a cheerful, "Good morning, Ms. B!" I looked into their eyes and tried to see all the way inside, desperate both to memorize their perfect vitality in that moment and to protect them from future despair. I couldn't square the children in front of me with the news I'd just gotten about my former student: how is it possible that a child who is so brilliantly vibrant in third grade could end her life as a sophomore in high school? And if you can't predict who that will be, how can you prevent it?

I can never protect them enough, I thought. I can't love them enough. I would give them every ounce of love in my being, and the world could still defeat them. Nothing is enough in the face of all that pain.

I failed that child. Who's to say I won't fail another?

When I got home from school, I pulled out my class photo from the year I had this girl. There she is in the second row, smiling, with a bow in her hair. I also dug through my "teacher treasure box" of mementos I've saved over the years and found the holiday photo card from her family in 2010; every photo features her: mugging for the camera, hugging her parents, playing violin. Looking at the pictures fills me with sadness, but I can't pull my eyes away; I have to take her in. I've been trying to think of things I could have done differently with this kid. Could I have shown her more how precious she was? Could I have instilled in her more resilience? Should I have followed up with her as she went through school and reminded her that she was still important to me?  But then I tell myself that I'm probably overstating my impact. After all, I've been through several major depressive episodes and ventured into some pretty dark mental territory over the past 15 years, and I've never once even thought of reaching out to my former third grade teacher for support (and I had an outstanding third grade teacher). The truth is, we--as elementary school teachers--play a huge role in our kids' lives while we have them. We nurture them, support them, and challenge them to grow...but then they do grow, and they leave us behind, and that's how it should be. Hopefully they never forget our love for them, but when they need help as teenagers, we are probably not going to be the people they run to. In their minds, we're from another lifetime. And so, there really isn't anything I should have done, or could have done, to save this student. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse, honestly. But it's the truth.

I don't know where G-d fits into all of this, and I'm not going to try to figure it out. There's no way to explain this and I'm not interested at people's attempts to find one. What I want, instead, is this: I want this child to be wrapped in a Divine hug, for her tears to be dried and for her pain to be smoothed away. And I want her parents to come out of this, somehow, with some sense of healing over the gaping, raw wound in which they are currently enveloped. I don't know how that is going to happen; I don't know how one ever recovers from something like this, but as long as I'm praying, that's what I'm going to ask for.

That, and an ever-increasing capacity to love my students fully, to show them how very right they are, just as they are. I want every child I ever teach to look back on third grade and say, "That was the year I was loved by my teacher." That's all, and that's everything.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

That Happened.

So, remember how in my last post I talked about my fear that Donald Trump would get elected and I would have to explain that to my students? I didn't really think it would happen. It was just a "what if" scenario--a scary one, but not one that I thought would actually come to pass.

Well, it happened. And I had to have that conversation. Here was one of their questions:

"Is Donald Trump really going to do all those things he said he'd do to Black people and Mexicans and everyone?"

Dear G-d, I thought, help me.

So I answered that student with some ideas I'd gleaned from my early morning reading of an article in the Huffington Post about how to talk to children about the results of this election. I told my students something about the Democratic process and how no one person truly dictates how the country actually runs; I said something about how our country as a whole doesn't share those values and wouldn't allow such things to happen. But even as I was saying those things in my most convincing, reassuring teacher voice, there was a voice inside me saying, "Well, really? Because what we thought would never happen, JUST HAPPENED. So how do I know we would never let his threats become reality?" I wanted my students to feel safe, protected from the sense that their country was sliding out from underneath them. But I was also keenly aware that I couldn't say, with certainty, that their fears were unfounded.

On my Instagram feed yesterday, Elizabeth Gilbert posted the following photo:
She also wrote a corresponding post on her Facebook page in which she outlined the qualities she wanted to possess during this crisis: Calm. Strong. Open-hearted. Curious. Generous. Wise. Brave. Humorous. Patient.

If she can do that, I thought, she is far more highly evolved than I. I do not know how anyone is living any of those attributes right now. I do know that yesterday I was exactly zero of those things. No one has ever accused me of handling crises gracefully, and I certainly did not see fit to start now. Yesterday morning, when I checked Instagram, I found my feed full of photos saying versions of the theme, "Love always wins." THAT IS TOTAL BULLSHIT, I thought. LOVE DOES NOT ALWAYS WIN. SOMETIMES HATE WINS. HATE WON THIS ELECTION. My anger was palpable and near to boiling. I was furious at the people who had voted Trump into office, and I was also mad at the people who were telling me to think positively. There might be a place for that in the future, I reasoned, but not now. Now I get to be angry. And I was, all day. 

The only feeling that overpowered my fury was despair. Complete and overwhelming despair. I didn't know my country anymore. It was not a place I recognized and I feared it would not be again. As a nation, we had brought upon ourselves the most devastating self-inflicted wound in at least fifty years. Trump was a disaster. Congress was a disaster. The Supreme Court would become a disaster. I couldn't even begin to contemplate the impending doom on a global scale. All day, I had one thought: I do not even want to exist in the world right now. It seemed broken beyond repair. 

Today I woke up feeling the same way. Trump was still President elect, and the world was still broken in more places than I could even begin to count. But at some point during the morning, I realized that my 100% Doom perspective was not a sustainable operating principle. I would not be able to function if I didn't shift my mentality at least a little bit out of the anger-and-depression zone. 

The thing that has helped the most so far has been finding out that Hillary did win the popular vote, so at least a little more than half the country truly doesn't agree with Trump's misogynist, racist, and xenophobic views. Of course, we have our antiquated and eternally puzzling Electoral College to thank for Trump still getting elected, but at least it's comforting to know that the country hasn't gone entirely off the rails. Maybe love did win a little bit, even if it didn't actually win win.

Also right up there is venting. I spent from 6:30-6:40 this morning commiserating with another teacher at my school, and there was something so validating about hearing him say, "Yesterday was the hardest day I've ever had as a teacher." We talked about our continued shock and our sense of not knowing what to do. I left that conversation not feeling as though anything had been resolved, but still feeling a bit lighter because I had shared my heavy feelings with another person who understood. We all need to do that. Air that sh*t out. 

And finally, finally, I am starting to think about action. One thing I noticed about myself this election cycle is that while I had strong views on the candidates and the issues, I did not voice them loudly or often because I was afraid of offending or alienating people. In retrospect, I appreciate my sensitivity but also wish that I had been brave enough to be more authentic about my views. Now, I am never going to be an activist and I am probably never going to go to rallies. I am not a campaigner, or a canvasser, or even a phone-banker. I'm not putting bumper stickers on my car, and I will probably continue to avoid engaging in political debates on social media. But. There are social causes I believe in, and groups I want to defend, that might be threatened over the next four years. If I can find ways to lend my support that do not fly in the face of my confrontation-averse nature, I want to lend my time and energy to those causes. I'm ready to think about this now. And while I don't know that I'm ready to completely buy into the idea that "love always wins" on a large scale, I do think it can win on a small one...and in the end, that's all I can control. The world is too complicated and its problems are too overwhelming for me to solve. The outcome of this election and the damage that might follow are out of my hands. All I can do is what I can do in my own little corner of life. Guide and nurture my students. Empathize with my friends and family. Actively support causes that connect with my passions. Write. It's all I can do. It's enough and not enough at the same time. But that's where we're at.

I don't know how I'll feel when I wake up tomorrow, or how the country will feel. I think we just have to take it day by day. Or hour by hour. Most importantly, we need to be there for each other. This was a viciously ugly election cycle with a traumatic outcome and aftermath. We're all going to need some comfort, no matter whom we voted for. I know I'm sending love out to you all.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Getting Political

Unless you have been blissfully living under a rock, you know that there is a national election coming up (this week!) in the U.S. Personally, I have had a stomach ache for about 72 hours straight just thinking about it, and that's just the Presidential election. There's also the matter of Congress, and there is no collective body in the United States for which I currently have more disdain than Congress. But the Presidential election clearly steals the show in the absurdity department. I feel like where we are today as Americans is kind of like the experience of waking up one morning, taking a look at your life, and thinking, "How did I get here?" If you do a careful and, honestly, not-so-difficult analysis, you can easily see how you did get to where you are. But it still seems so impossible. That is the United States right now. This situation was an impossible joke until we realized we made it happen, and now here we are.

As a teacher, I often worry about how I will explain disturbing current events to my young students. Thankfully, most of the time my kids exist in a state of age-appropriate unawareness. Every year, 9/11 comes and goes without more than a peep of recognition. After the Sandy Hook massacre, only one student seemed to know what had happened. The Boston Marathon bombing also seemed to pass in and out of my students' consciousness with minimal disturbance. So I was hoping, perhaps irrationally, that maybe my kids would also be unaware of the complete mess that is this Presidential race. But then two weeks ago we were on a school bus, coming home from a field trip, and I heard one of my boys in the back of the bus yell, clear as day, "TRUMP TOUCHED UP HER SKIRT!" And then I knew, there was going to be no avoiding it.

I told this story to my best friend in Israel last week, and I asked her, "G-d forbid he gets elected--how am I going to explain to my third graders that the man who brags about basically committing sexual assault is now our President?!" She paused, and then replied, "Yeah...I wish I could say that was my biggest problem with him."

I think that about sums it up.

And so, I have been a puddle of anxiety for the past few days. Right before Shabbat I had to take a Xanax, because OH MY G-D. Then I thought, how am I actually going to survive Tuesday? Or Wednesday, for that matter? I can't just keep taking Xanax. I mean, I can, but I'm going to need an actual strategy. So (and here's the Jewish connection I know you've been waiting for), I decided to see what Jewish tradition has to say about managing acute anxiety. Here's what I found.

There is a verse in Proverbs (12:25) which says:

דאגה בלב איש ישחנה ודבר טוב ישמחנה
Anxiety in the heart of man bows it down, but a good word makes it glad.

As is so often the case in Hebrew, the word for, "bows it down," ישחנה, can have other meanings, depending on how one reads the word in context: 1)  to suppress; 2) to ignore; 3) to articulate. These meanings also correspond to three strategies (or stages) for managing anxiety.

STAGE ONE: Suppress/Minimize

In this stage, we can make our anxiety bearable by making it smaller, often by telling ourselves that the problem isn't really as big as it seems. Regarding this election, I definitely did this for quite a while when I told myself, "Americans would never let Trump get elected." Since the possibility seemed too awful to even begin to deal with, I just told myself it wouldn't happen. But that only worked for so long. Which brings me to...


This is when we separate ourselves from the source of our anxiety. Personally, I have spent a lot of time in this stage lately. I stopped watching the news, I didn't read any articles on politics, and pretty much just stuck my head in the sand without apology. I figured this was the only viable option because whenever I came across any non-comedic election coverage, I felt my anxiety shoot up almost instantly. I'll be the first to say, avoidance is one of my favorite strategies. But now the election is two days away and I'm finding myself checking in with Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight several times a day, so it's time to move on to the next phase of the plan:

STAGE THREE: Articulate

This stage, my lovelies, is where we talk about it. 

I did this at shul yesterday with a friend of mine during Kiddush--we spent the entire time processing the current political situation, and every ten minutes or so we would say, "I can't even talk about this anymore"--at which point we would continue to talk about it. While it didn't solve anything, it was so helpful to just talk about it with someone who could commiserate. And while this was shared anxiety that we both were feeling, I think this strategy works even when the anxiety is all yours--talking about it takes some of the power away. 

I don't know about you, but I am going to need all of these stages over the next few days. I suspect 
that, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, you are going to need them, as well. So use them as often as necessary to combat the stress of the current situation and its aftermath. And if it all works out well, I, for one, will be bentching gomel. Feel free to join me!