Birds of a Feather Flock Together: On Anxiety and Depression

So, lately, there’s been this thing bothering me.

Well, no, scratch that. Lately, everything is bothering me, nagging at me, even the littlest things. 

As you may or may not be able to tell, I worry a lot. A lot a lot. Sometimes (quite a bit, recently), that worry begins to dominate and take over my life. 

This is what anxiety feels like for me—constant, ever-present worry that never really goes away until the situation (whatever situation that might be) is resolved. Sometimes, the situation I’m worried about can be resolved fairly quickly and easily. Other times, it’s simply not possible for it to be completely resolved, or that resolution might take some time. For instance, maybe I have to wait for the solution to come to me, via another person, and I can’t solve a particular problem entirely on my own, so I have to wait for their response or wait for them to get back to me with a resolution.

This drives me up the wall. I worry, and I worry, until I’m all worried out…and then I worry some more.

I worry about things that I can’t change, and things that I can. I worry about events so far in the future as to be completely meaningless to the present. I worry about things in the past that I can no longer control, or even things in the past that perhaps embarrassed me, but overall had no lasting impact on my life. I worry about what strangers think of me, and also the people who know me well. 

A list of things I worried about today, the abridged version: I worried about running out of time to run the errands I needed to run, I worried about not being able to park in the right spot, I worried about not being able to find where I was driving to (despite having been there before on many occasions), I worried about my partner being mad at me because we paid too much for parking (even though it wasn’t my fault), I worried about asking my workplace for time off for an important event because it might make me look bad, I worried about how one of my co-workers perceives me, I worried about making it to my appointment on time, and then I worried I was inconveniencing my doctor and ohmygodshe’sgoingtobesomadatme (for the record—in a completely predictable outcome to everyone but me—she totally wasn’t). 

The worry is all-encompassing, and I think to myself, “if I could just do/resolve X, then I could be happy and stop worrying.” I should know better, of course, because it’s a similar cycle with depression. “If I could just do/resolve X, then I could be okay again and stop feeling as bad as I do.” But that’s the trouble, because anxiety (and by extension, depression) doesn’t come from the outside world. It never did. Anxiety is not a tangible object or force that exists in the physical world, independent of me. I create it. And that’s why I’m always worried, because the anxiety exists inside of me, and it latches onto the everyday things that happen to me, and makes them bigger and scarier and more difficult than they really are. Depression is the most wonderful companion to anxiety, because they go hand-in-hand.

For example, I have quite a bit of anxiety about driving. Despite what you might assume, it’s not actually the driving part that causes me anxiety. It’s other drivers and their thoughts. I worry in the car all the time, because I worry about what other drivers—complete, utter strangers that I am unlikely ever to meet or have any sort of contact with—think of me and my driving ability. Am I going too slow for this person, is that why they passed me, is it because they think I’m a horrible driver, is it because they don’t like me? Should I speed to make this person behind me less impatient? Am I letting down everyone because I made a slightly crooked left turn back there? 

Then, depressive brain comes along and says, “Oh yes. Yes, I think you did make a very bad turn there, and EVERYONE saw it, and now they’re all sneering behind their steering wheels at you. Everyone is mad at you, they’re probably talking badly to their passenger about you and your total lack of ability. Why do you even bother? Maybe you should just walk for the rest of your life.”

This is one small example of the dozens and dozens that I deal with on a daily basis. Anxiety and depression are the perfect bedfellows, because they feed on and encourage each other. Anxiety anticipates the criticism that depression doles out, and then depression does dole it out, and then anxiety grows around that self-criticism, and then depression further criticizes your anxiety about that criticism, and on and on we go. 

Additionally, because I also deal with depression, I have a very finite amount of energy to deal with my daily life. I explain it like this: imagine that each person’s energy is a battery. A neurotypical person with no disabilities has their battery at 100% on their best, most energetic, most enthusiastic day. I have a battery too, but on my best, most energetic day, my battery is probably at 80%. On my worst days, it can be less than 5%, and those are generally the days when I have to try and make time to do nothing. Anxiety drains the battery, in a slow, persistent, endless drain. It’s like how your screen brightness slowly drains your battery in the background of the actual tasks your computer is performing—it’s there, and even if you turn down the brightness a little, it’s still going to slowly drain the battery until it needs a recharge. 
Depression limits my energy and ability to do daily tasks, and anxiety significantly inhibits my ability to use the energy that I do have for the things that need to get done. It makes life harder. It can make everyday errands exhausting and overwhelming. 

My biggest struggle right now with anxiety is my need to get things settled. I cannot just let things be. I am a proactive person by nature, and I want to solve ALL THE PROBLEMS before they even happen. I want to be prepared for any and every situation that comes my way, and I want to have a perfect solution ready for when that happens. This causes me to catastrophize and imagine the absolute worst (and most of the time, most unlikely) scenario, and have a ready-made solution for it so that when the worst happens (and because of depressed brain, I am convinced the worst will happen), I AM PREPARED, LET’S DO THIS, I AM NOT AFRAID OF LIFE, CAN YOU SEE HOW UNAFRAID I AM? CAN YOU SEE IT?

But the result is quite different. Instead of being prepared for situations, I find myself completely unprepared for how simple the solutions to my daily problems usually are. I realize, in the end, that worrying about the worst only made me feel depressed, sad, and constantly on edge—and for what reason? My brain concocts the worst scenarios in the bizarre belief that I can somehow control the bad things that happen to me simply by thinking about them before they actually occur. The reality is, we cannot control anything before it happens. The future is truly unknowable. 

Why am I writing this today? To be truthful, I don’t know. I had a long conversation today with my psychiatrist about this subject, and I wanted to, let’s say, “practice what I preach.” This is me doing a bit of that, maybe. I have a lot of internalized stigma that I don’t like to admit to, because I don’t feel that way about other people. When someone tells me they are depressed, or anxious, or even when someone just tells me how they’re feeling, my immediate reaction is not, “you shouldn’t be feeling that way,” or “your feelings are wrong.” My immediate reaction is, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” and “please talk to me about this.” I have to remind myself that other people are capable of feeling that way about me, too. I project onto other people how I feel about myself, or how my depressed brain tells me I should feel about myself. 

In the end, there’s no quick fix. I have always maintained that I want to be realistic about my illness and my situation. I don’t want to be idealistic because it makes me feel powerless to change my life. I need to be realistic and say that this is my lifelong struggle, but that it has gotten easier to control my symptoms over the years. You learn how to step outside of yourself, and it’s a process, and it’s not always successful. If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health problem, I encourage you to speak out when you can, with the forums you have available to you. It’s easy to think, “oh, depression and anxiety, I know what that means in theory”, but it’s quite another thing to make people understand what those things mean in practice. It happens when you’re driving your car and running errands. It happens when you’re in class or at work. It happens when you’re alone, and when you’re with other people. It happens with strangers, and it happens with friends. I didn’t ask for this to happen, but it did, and now I have to find creative ways to work around it. Sometimes, I’m very successful at that, and other times, I’m very unsuccessful, but I keep on going. The important thing is not how many times you fail, but rather that, when faced with that ultimate question—“to be or not to be”—you try your best to always say, despite how you feel, “to be.”

To quote P!nk for a rare moment: “You get what you’re given, it’s all how you use it.”

(Sorry if this post is a bit disjointed. I decided to write it all at once, and only lightly proofread it for spelling and grammar mistakes. I just had to get it out.)

An Honest Conversation about Depression, Part 1: The Basics (Q & A)

Content note: This post contains frank discussions about depression, triggers, and thoughts and behaviours associated with serious depressive episodes. If you are prone to being triggered by any or all of the above, I strongly suggest you stop reading immediately.

This is a piece based on a conversation that I had with a friend recently about my experiences with depression. I had never talked in this amount of detail with her before about depression, and understandably, she had a lot of questions. It was a very productive conversation, so I thought I would put it here for the reference of others who may have similar questions about what depression is like, how it feels, and various social problems surrounding it. When I started writing, it suddenly ballooned, and I realized I had much more material than could be feasibly contained in one single post, and so I have decided to split it up into at least two, possibly three, parts. I hope you will find them educational, engaging, and enlightening.

I have chosen to recreate the conversation in a Q & A format for easier reading. This discussion does not necessarily appear exactly as it occurred—many parts of it have been edited, revised, and most of all, expanded to include other issues or ideas that I feel are important to address, but were not addressed at the time in a relatively casual conversation. Finally, I would like to issue a thank-you to my friend for asking the honest questions seeking honest answers, which inspired me to write this post. I appreciate your genuine concern and compassion, and I’m lucky to call you my friend.

Q: What is depression like? What happens to you when it happens?

A: Not so easy to answer, because it sort of depends. Am I being triggered by something when it occurs, or does it just “happen” to me? If I’m being triggered, a lot of the time I get upset first and it’s very visible—so crying, shaking, etc, would be signs that I’m starting to experience an episode. However, even if I’m triggered by something, it may not be immediately apparent even to me—sometimes, I don’t even realize I was triggered until later on when I talk about it. If depression just “happens” to me, it’s not usually visible at all. Sometimes I literally just wake up that way, and I don’t know why it happens. More recently, this is the more common occurrence, where I can’t really explain why I feel the way that I do, because I don’t really have anything particularly bad on my mind. That is confusing to a lot of people.

As for what it’s like, that’s really hard to describe. You probably can’t really grasp it if you’ve never experienced it. Plus, I get a lot of different symptoms at different times, so it’s never really one, unified experience of depression. That’s the same for most people, and not everyone has every symptom (in fact, most people don’t), so my experience with depression is definitely not universal. But try to imagine the most bored you’ve ever felt. Then imagine the most indifferent you’ve ever felt about anything, that you couldn’t even make yourself care about whatever it was. Now combine the two, and imagine feeling that bored and that indifferent, basically all the time, about everything—even the things that you really enjoy or care about. Imagine suddenly not being able to enjoy anything, even stuff that you really love. Because you can’t enjoy anything, that means that you can’t switch to another activity because you’re bored and indifferent, because you feel that way about everything. Nothing is enjoyable, and everything is boring, and your whole life kind of grinds to a halt, because you start to think that everything is completely pointless. Nothing is fun anymore, nothing feels good. Food doesn’t taste good, sunshine doesn’t feel good, a hug doesn’t make you feel anything. You feel numb and emotionless a lot of the time.

(Important to note: this is a very, very basic explanation of depression as it happens to me. It does not apply to everyone and is not representative of anyone besides myself. Also, this explanation is extremely condensed, because we could be here forever if I talked about every single one of my symptoms at length. Therefore, take this as a basic, baseline sort of explanation of my experience; it is not representative, nor is it complete.)

Q: That sounds really, really frustrating!

A: It really is! It’s very difficult for you to emote properly, because you’re in this weird state of apathy most of the time. So, when I feel this way, it’s really hard—almost physically impossible—for me to cry, even if I see something sad or if something bad happens. Somewhere, I think, I still feel the sadness, but it’s pretty much buried underneath this indifference. If I do manage to cry, I often can’t stop—it’s just a wave of emotion that feels crushing because it’s like it’s been held up behind a dam for all of this time, and now it’s been broken up. So it’s really one extreme to the other, there isn’t much space in between.

Q: You talk about episodes. What is an episode?

A: I use that word in two ways. The first way is the most common, and it’s the medically accepted way to use it: an episode is a period where depression occurs and persists for two weeks or more. (An episode can also, more generally, refer to the recurrence of symptoms in many other psychiatric disorders, but for this post, we’ll use it in a depression-context.) I personally also use “episode” to refer to a crisis period in myself while I am depressed. So if I have a “crisis period”—that is, my depressive symptoms reach a critical point where I lose my ability to cope with them in some way—I’ll refer to that as an “episode.” But really, what I’m saying is that it’s an episode within an episode, and hopefully that isn’t too confusing.

Q: So, when do these episodes happen? What makes them happen? Do you or can you know if it’s going to happen?

A: Episodes happen very unexpectedly most of the time. For me, I can be triggered into an episode, or I can just have one “happen” to me. As I said before, the latter has been the most common recently. In cases of being triggered, any one of my triggers can potentially make an episode happen. That said, just because I experience one of my triggers, doesn’t mean I will absolutely have an episode. Sometimes, things unexpectedly trigger me for reasons that are hard to understand at first glance. If I’m not triggered and I have an episode, then I don’t know what makes them happen, and honestly, neither does anyone else. Not even doctors really know the root cause of depression, and as a result, treatments are limited. This doesn’t mean that the treatment available is not helpful; it just means that the scope of treatments is quite small in comparison to many other illnesses.

As to whether or not I can know if it’s going to happen…again, it’s really hard to say. Sometimes I can feel it coming on, and I just know it’s going to hit me within a few days. But that’s quite rare, comparatively. Most of the time, I have no idea that it’s coming, and it just hits me, sometimes in minutes, without warning. Episodes, for me personally, occur in a pretty random pattern a lot of the time. Of course, they often correlate with difficult times in my life, but that is not always the case—I don’t have to be “going through something” to be depressed, and recently, the more common thing has been depression happening for no reason at all. I don’t have what some people refer to as “situational depression”—i.e., depression that happens as the result of bad or difficult life circumstances. Although that can certainly happen to me when I’m having a difficult time in my life, for me it’s much more complicated than that.

Q: Are episodes completely random, then? How do you cope with episodes if they are random and difficult to predict? It sounds so inconvenient.

A: Yes, major depression is—among so many other things, of course—extremely inconvenient. Depression doesn’t care what you have to do on any given day. It doesn’t care how important this job interview, or this paper you’re writing, or this deadline that is coming up, is to you. It comes whenever it comes, uninvited, and you have to just manage to deal with it, somehow. If you have a good support system, it’s easier. But many people don’t have a good support system precisely because they are depressed. Lots of people tend to bail on you when they realize you’re a “problem” to them. It’s sad, and you may not want to believe it, but it’s absolutely true, and not exclusive to depression. Many people bail on friends when said friend is undergoing seriously crappy circumstances (for example, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a beloved career, or another very painful situation that might make someone less fun to be around).

Q: What are triggers? What do they do?

A: Triggers are exactly what they sound like—they are agents that can potentially ‘trigger’ an episode. Triggers can be almost anything, from people, to objects, to media, to…well, anything, really. Triggers are usually agents that are associated with some kind of trauma, but this does not always have to be the case. Anything has the potential to be a trigger, because people are triggered by entirely different things. As you can imagine, that’s why it can be very tricky to figure out how to approach things when it comes to people with depression or other types of mental illness. It’s difficult to know what might trigger them, not only because of the wide variety of triggers, but also because the person in question may not even know all of their triggers. It’s a hard balance to strike between having appropriate trigger warnings and making everything into a trigger warning.

Q: They have treatments for depression, though, right? You said you’d been on medication before. Did that help? 

A: Yes, I was on medication for almost two years. As to whether it helped, that’s a complicated answer. Yes, it was helpful for a while. I experienced a really rare and severe side-effect, so I had to stop taking it. Besides that, though, I got what is called a “wash-out effect.” That means that you take a certain med for a while, and it works, but eventually, its effectiveness begins to wane over time and your symptoms return despite you taking it.

I took a few different drugs, and there are different types of anti-depressants. I took Prozac at one point, which is an SSRI, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. SSRIs are a classification of anti-depressant, and also include drugs like Zoloft, Paxil, and Celexa. An SSRI is most likely what you would be prescribed first, and they all work in a similar manner: they regulate the serotonin chemical in the brain, which is thought to be related to depression. (Please note that I am definitely not a psychiatrist or a neurologist, so my understanding and explanation of brain chemistry is very, very basic.) Later, though, I was on a drug called Effexor XR (extended release). Effexor is a newer drug for depression, and it regulates serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, all of which are chemicals in the brain believed to be associated with depression. It attempts to inhibit the neurotransmitters in the brain that are believed to be associated with it.

Medication, like all treatments, isn’t for everyone. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty huge stigma surrounding psychiatric medications, which makes it very difficult for people who want or need them to continue taking them. It also puts people off of trying a treatment that could potentially be very effective for them.

Q: What is the stigma around medications? Don’t people know that it’s none of their business?

A: God, I wish they did! Too many people think it’s perfectly okay to comment on other people’s use of psychiatric medications, without any knowledge of what the drugs do or more importantly, what that patient is experiencing that made them need to take the drugs in the first place! They are also often pretty ignorant of what the drugs really do. (“They make you into a zombie!” “They’ll take your soul away!” Uh, no. They don’t.)

Listen, I am all for not medicating people when they don’t need it…but who gets to define “not needing”? If you are experiencing serious mental illness—serious enough that your doctor is okay with prescribing you medication—then that’s enough to convince me that you’re taking those drugs for a good reason, and it’s not my place to judge you. Taking medication is a choice made with your medical professional, and who cares if I have a problem with it? (For the record, I certainly don’t, but even if I did, commenting on it is extremely inappropriate.)

You wouldn’t tell someone to stop taking their kidney medication because your kidneys are strong enough without them! Don’t give in to the pressure! Your kidneys definitely will not fail if you stop taking your medication! I can see them right now, you have strong kidneys, you will be just fine, my friend!

No, because that would be supremely unhelpful, weird, and totally inappropriate. Because that person is obviously taking kidney medication precisely because their kidneys are not strong right now, their kidneys probably will fail if they stop taking it, and you are not the person to tell them that their kidneys are doing okay now, because you are not a doctor, and you have—surprise!—no magical insight that the patient or the doctor does not have about the condition of the patient. You are not aware of anything special that they’re not already aware of, and your “advice” and “concern” about their medications comes off as patronizing, annoying, and invalidating.

Let me tell you what you’re really saying when you tell someone to stop taking their anti-depressants. You’re saying, “I don’t believe you.” You’re saying, “You’re weak for taking what makes you feel better.” You’re saying, “I don’t really care about how you’re actually feeling, even if these medications are making you feel better.” You’re saying, “My opinion is more important than your health.” You’re saying, “I am not someone you can rely on for help in these, or perhaps any, troubling situations.” You’re saying, “I need to be right. I need to have the last word. And I am willing to do this at the expense of your mental health, even though I’m now aware that that is an area in which you are experiencing problems severe enough that you and your doctor have decided to put you on medication. In other words, I don’t really care about you or how you’re feeling, and am the most important person right now, and your actual problems don’t really matter to me.” Most of all, you are saying, “I am not someone who can be trusted.”

If you have real concerns about the implications of psychiatric drugs, that’s okay. Lots of people do, and there may be some valid critiques of their usage and distribution. But the time to express those concerns is not to the person taking them, who is suffering. After all, they didn’t invent the drug; they’re just hoping that it will help to shift the huge cloud of despair and purposelessness that is hanging over their whole lives, and their trusted medical professional has said, “Here, this may or may not relieve some of the pain.” And when you’re in that much pain, frankly, you are willing to accept any risk necessary to alleviate even some of it.

Besides that, lots of people are worried about the implications of all sorts of drugs, not just psychiatric drugs. Mysteriously, however, it’s usually only people with mental illness who get an earful about how bad and wrong their medications are. That’s because we as a society have a problem with mental illness. We don’t understand it, and we have a general contempt for people who experience it. If we didn’t have those things, we might still be worried about psychiatric drugs, but we definitely wouldn’t be blaming people with mental illnesses for taking them in an attempt to assuage their pain.

Finally, these drugs exist because they genuinely help people. Everybody has a story about some horrific side-effect, and it’s true, it happens….but many, many people find medications helpful. If they didn’t, they would not still be available. I know, drug companies, Big Pharma, conspiracies, mind control, etc, but really. Really. They really help people. And most people don’t need to take them forever, and most people don’t take them forever. They are frequently used as a short-term solution just to help people keep living life and not jump off a bridge. When they are a long-term solution, well, that’s between a patient and a doctor, not between a patient and the rest of the world. So please…keep your unwanted opinions to yourself.

Q: Is there any chance that your episodes could or will go away in the future? How likely are you to experience another episode?

A: I wish I had more straight answers for you, my friend, but when it comes to depression—and most mental illness in general—there are very few clear answers, very few things that anyone can say for sure, including mental health professionals. That’s part of what makes it all so difficult to deal with—it’s all quite unpredictable.

Is it possible that my episodes might magically disappear? I suppose anything is technically possible. However, is it likely? I don’t think so, and neither does my psychiatrist. It is, once again, complicated…

You see, technically anyone can experience a major depressive episode. Yes, even neurotypical people can have them sometimes. You, as a neurotypical person, could potentially have an episode yourself—one episode in your life, probably triggered by a major life event, and then, you might never experience symptoms again. That’s the tricky thing, because lots of people become clinically depressed at some point during their lives, but not as many people experience chronic, repeated, treatment-resistant depression like I do. I am in quite a different situation to those people, because every episode that I have increases the probability of having another. Given that I have had, oh, probably hundreds of episodes in my short lifetime, the probability of having another episode at some point is pretty much a sure thing. But that is definitely not the same for every person, because again, some people have a single episode and never have another as long as they live.

Q: Does the weather affect you? I know it affects me, even though I’m not depressed. Do you get more depressed in the wintertime?

Q: This is a question that comes up surprisingly often, and I can see why: the weather gets a lot of people down, so the logical conclusion is that if you’re depressed, it would make you more so, right? But I think you’re confusing me with someone who experiences SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. They experience depression in direct relation to the winter season, and it can be quite difficult for them. I don’t have SAD, though; I have MDD, or Major Depressive Disorder. There is a common misconception that depression is one, unified illness, and it’s really not—there are several different types of depression, and beyond that, every specific case of depression is unique because not all people have the same symptoms. It’s important to make these distinctions in order to avoid mislabeling or invalidating anyone, and to create an environment that is inclusive of everyone’s unique experiences with their illness.

That’s it for this first installment of the series on depression. I will be posting a second (and possibly third) part of this series in the near future, so if you enjoyed this one, stay tuned for another one soon.

Fatness and Self-Loathing

Content note: this post contains content pertaining to fat-shaming, mental health problems, and the general crappiness of living in a world that hates you. If you aren’t in a place where you can read about these things right now, I suggest you stop reading immediately.

A couple of years ago, I had to go on medication that made me gain weight like crazy. Seriously. I gained 60 pounds in a single calendar year. I never imagined myself as a fat person; before I’d gained all that weight, I’d been a really normal weight for my height. I’d never had weight problems in my life, and I’d never had issues with food, so the weight gain was a massive shock for me. So when I gained all that weight, and suddenly began life as a fat person, I wasn’t prepared.

I wasn’t prepared for how miserable other people would make me feel about myself, about my body, the kind of assumptions they would make about me, how much more difficult my life became. The thing is, when you’re fat, all of your problems became solely your own fault, and your existence as a fat person is always to blame. You can’t find clothes that fit? It’s because you’re so damn fat, why don’t you lose some weight, fatty, why don’t you stop eating? You don’t like this other woman? Well, maybe if you lost some weight, you wouldn’t be so jealous of others. You can’t win when you’re fat, because when you’re fat, you are assumed to be jealous, mean, lazy, stupid, and by default, unhappy with yourself. Which, of course, means that—surprise!—YOU HATE YOURSELF. And you believe that if you could just lose some weight, you’d feel so much better. You really believe this, because that’s what everyone—your parents, your friends, your relatives, some random people on the bus, the magazines and the weight loss ads—have been telling you will make you truly happy and good again. They tell you that you can never be happy if you’re fat, and if you are, then you ought to be ashamed. (And, keep in mind, I was a person with fairly severe Major Depressive Disorder, to the point that I became virtually non-functioning, and when you already hate yourself because you’re seriously ill, hating yourself even more isn’t exactly productive.)

I’m here to deliver this message, that that self-hatred doesn’t go away when you lose the weight. So if you’re overweight, or obese, or even if you just want to lose a couple pounds because you hate yourself, let me tell you that weight loss will never make you happy. It has never made me happy in a way that lasted. I’ve lost 45 pounds in a year and a half. But fat me never went away. She just got thinner, and kept on hating herself. Because that internalization of self-loathing doesn’t resolve itself by getting thinner, because the reality is that no matter how thin you get, it’s never going to be thin enough to make you believe you’re worthwhile. Not until you decide that you are. Not until you choose to be more than your weight. Not until you decide that “fat” is a characteristic rather than an insult. Not until you decide to accept yourself because you’re a person and you don’t exist for other people to look at. If you want to lose weight just because you hate yourself, you’re never going to be happy. You’re just going to lose weight and feel even sadder and more pathetic because even though the weight is gone, you’re still the same self-loathing person you were before. I’ve spent way too long agonizing and hating myself over something that wasn’t even my fault, and feeling the scrutiny and forced politeness of others when I talk about my experience with fatness. Because fatness makes them uncomfortable, and talking about me being fat makes them uncomfortable, and because they don’t understand what it’s like to hate yourself with that level of intensity, knowing that WHILE YOU ARE HATING YOURSELF, everyone else is hating you just as much. Because when you’re not fat, you can tell yourself, placate yourself, with the thought that you aren’t actually fat and nobody probably feels the same way that you do about yourself. When you’re fat, you KNOW that everybody hates your fat just as much as you do, and generally they aren’t super afraid to tell you so, even if they don’t expressly say it to your face (“Wow, that actress got so fat!” about the actress that is probably 1/3 your size).

This is a culture of thinness, where thinness is the ultimate expression of beauty and purity and wholesomeness. If you’re fat, you have no place in this culture, and you also have no right to want a place in this culture. As a fat person, you better take up as little space as possible, and you better worry a lot about your weight to make up for how fat you are. You’d better constantly apologize about the fact that you’re fat, about the fact that you may not be able to lose weight for some reason, about the fact that you exist as a fat person in a culture that consistently tells you that you’re not welcome. And the worst part? It’s not just the media, or people on the Internet, or glossy fashion magazines that will tell you that you can’t possibly be loved unless you stop being fat. It’s your family. It’s your friends. It’s the people closest to you, that because they buy into this idea, will tell you that unless you stop being fat, they can’t love you anymore.

Too many people make this about “health.” It’s been stated many times by many different people that someone’s health is none of your business, so I won’t make that point here. It’s also been stated many times that weight is not always a reliable predictor of health. But I just want to say this: even if a fat person is the most unhealthy person you know, why on earth should this mean that they are unworthy of your love, of your time, of your friendship and compassion? They may be fat, but they’re still there, and still a person, and, because of all this shaming—perhaps even a lifetime of shaming—they may hate themselves. And if jeering, and laughing, and purposefully trying to hurt someone, is the way to treat someone feeling that badly about themselves, then maybe I don’t belong to this culture anymore. Speaking as a person who has hated herself for a long, long time, for many different reasons, I can say that what I personally needed at my lowest moments was definitely not more hatred to further validate my own self-loathing. What I needed was someone to say, “Hey. It’s okay. That’s too bad that you gained all of that weight, I can see why that might bum you out. We still like you, though.”

That’s all I ever wanted. That’s still what I need today. I’m still trying to find myself in all of this, because to be real here, I still hate myself. I still hate my body. I go through the motions of hating myself all the time. I don’t feel happy with myself most of the time, even though 45 pounds is what you might call dramatic weight loss. But I no longer delude myself in thinking that weight loss is going to solve my problems, because I know for a fact that it doesn’t and it never will. I’m taking slow, careful steps to accepting myself. It’s hard. It has been, at times, excruciatingly painful, because I constantly feel like everyone is rooting for me to fail, because I need to lose more weight. I may never trust anyone when they compliment my appearance ever again. But I’m trying. That’s all you can do on this journey to self-acceptance, and I’ve learned that nobody can hurt you if you own up to what you are. The second you own up to being fat, it loses a bit of its power. The second that you take back that word, it loses some of its ability to hurt you.

All you can do is try.

The Man in the Cage: Male Privilege and Harassment

Content note: this post contains content pertaining to sexual harassment, including a personal experience of mine. If you don’t feel that you are in a place where you can successfully handle reading about this topic, then I suggest you stop reading immediately.

If you’ve ever cruised on through online discussions about sexual harassment, abuse, or rape as cultural phenomena, you will inevitably run across That Guy. And it is, 99.9% of the time, a guy. 98% of the time, it’s a white, heterosexual, cisgendered guy who just “doesn’t understand” why we’re “assuming that men are rapists” right off the bat, and why won’t women just stop being afraid and all that, because really, there’s nothing to be afraid of, and he’s not going to rape you, and don’t you know that most guys aren’t like that, and why don’t you just understand how hurt and so very sad it makes him. That Guy. Don’t be That Guy, and we’ll get into why in just a moment.

This is a post about male privilege, and I know that men often get extremely defensive in these discussions. I will ask that you refrain from that. Your defensiveness is a product of your privilege, and a side-effect of your denial of that privilege. If, in the duration of this post, you find yourself getting defensive or frustrated or even angry, I will ask you—before leaving a blazing comment or linking to this blog post with your snort of derision—to step back for a bit. Step back from those emotions, and really try to process what I’m saying. I’m telling you about my experience as a person, but more importantly in this context, I am telling you about my experience as a woman.

About five years ago, I worked at a fast food chain part-time while in high school. In the basement of our restaurant, there was something we called “the cage.” Basically, it was a fenced-in area where various supplies for the restaurant—drinking cups, utensils, paper containers, etc—was jammed in. There were shelves made into aisles, kind of like at a library (only with McDonald’s containers), and they extended to the ceiling. The space between shelves was very small; there was no room for two people to stand side-by-side. So, if you had two people in an aisle, the person further in wouldn’t be able to get out until the second person moved. You can maybe see where I’m going with this.

So one night, I was instructed by my boss to go downstairs into the cage and get some more of whatever we needed. So I did. I went down one of the aisles to the very end, where the condiments (it came to me!) were. At that time, it just so happened that nobody was in the basement, and I was alone. Well, as I was standing there, filling my basket full of ketchup to take back upstairs, one of my male co-workers came downstairs and into the cage. He saw me, and came down the aisle I was in. This co-worker had made me uneasy in the past, and was not a very popular guy in general. He came down the aisle, stopping just in front of me, and said hi. I said hi back, and then politely asked him to move so that I could get out with the supplies and go back upstairs. He refused. He picked up one of the knives out of the box, held it up, and looked at me with a smile on his face. Again, I asked him to move, and again, he refused. Holding up the knife, he said, “You know, I could cut you with this, if I wanted to.” Now, it was a plastic knife. There was very little chance of it doing me any serious harm. But the fear that swept over me was a very familiar fear, the same fear that I’ve had when men have called out to me on the street, the same fear I’ve had when men would make obscene gestures at me behind the counter, the same fear I’ve had when I’m walking alone at night. Because I’ve been told, all my life, from my childhood, that if I’m not careful, men will hurt me. If I don’t take the proper precautions, do the right things, men will hurt me. And so I’ve tried my utmost not to allow that. And yet here I was, in the basement of my own workplace, cornered by this young man, who is telling me with pleasure that he could cut me if he wanted to. And I asked him to move again, and again he refused. To my immense relief, at that moment, another co-worker came down the stairs, and he quickly scampered away. But that experience has stayed with me.

People say, “why don’t women just tell the guy to stop?” I did. I told him nicely, and then I told him not-so-nicely. It didn’t change a thing, and if anything, my growing fear actually encouraged him, rather than deterred him. He liked making me afraid, uncomfortable, unsettled, and shaken. He liked that power. That’s what you don’t understand, as a man, because it hasn’t been impressed so emphatically on you that if you do something wrong, men will hurt you. That’s the message I’ve been given my whole life, and how was I supposed to know that this guy wasn’t serious about hurting me? How was I supposed to know if he was just screwing around with me? What right did he have to invade my personal space and boundaries and essentially threaten me at my own workplace? The fact that anyone can assert that I am overreacting is privilege. If you’ve never been there, if you’ve never had to deal with being cornered by some guy that you may or may not know, then you can’t possibly understand the feeling. Men are offended by women’s suspicions of them, but given the cultural expectation that men will hurt us if we do the wrong things, how could we possibly feel any other way? It’s not that I genuinely believe that all men, or even most men, are rapists. I understand that most men are not rapists. But unfortunately, I cannot easily identify who is and isn’t a rapist or a harasser. There is no profile. I’ve been sexually harassed by men older than my father, and by teenage boys. There is no profile or picture of a harasser or a rapist. They look exactly like everyone else, and they don’t exactly announce themselves. So instead, my culture has taught me that constant vigilance is the only way to stop men from hurting me.

Statistically, rape is a very common crime. 1 in 6 women has been raped in her lifetime, for example. Given this, and the way I’ve been socialized, how could I realistically not have been afraid when my co-worker cornered me in a place from which I could not easily escape? I was literally inside a “cage”, of sorts, which was fenced in, with fences that rose to the ceiling. The door was far away.

And how much would it really have cost my male co-worker to not have come into the cage, to not have cornered me, to not have said what he did? Absolutely nothing, and yet his actions cost me a good deal of peace at work. The amount of sexual harassment I faced behind the counter became part of my job, and so to have it amplified by my own co-worker made me feel even more unsafe. And if you think that your hurt feelings are more important than my sense of safety and security? Your privilege is showing.

As a man, you don’t have to think about the constant threat of rape and/or harassment, and not just because it’s not as statistically likely to happen to you. Of course, rape does happen to men, and it’s every bit as terrible—but there is not the same expectation that, as a man, you will get hurt for walking by yourself at the wrong time or place, or by wearing the wrong things, or by drinking the wrong amount, or by not knowing how to defend yourself effectively, or by not modifying your behaviour specifically so that men will, theoretically, have “no reason” to trouble you. Because if they do, then it’s your fault that they did. How much does it cost that man to walk away, to not catcall at you, to not corner you, to not make sexual comments at you, to not grope you, to not threaten you? Nothing whatsoever. How much does it cost me to receive that harassment and abuse? A whole lot. My sense of safety is shaken, I feel nervous going out alone, I go through the scenarios in my mind and try to think of ways to get out of them before they happen. I try to modify my own behaviour—taking a different route, trying to ignore it, etc—to make it stop, and yet it never does, because my behaviour is not the problem. This should be obvious, and yet it’s not, because in a world where women are not truly valued as whole, complete, functional, sentient, feeling people who have a right to safety just like everybody else, we assume that men have the best intentions even when they do the worst things. Furthermore, the very definition of privilege is deciding that because a certain issue does not specifically or directly affect you, it must not really be a problem, or alternatively, it must not really be happening.

And given the reactions that we get when we tell these stories, how could you really expect women to not be wary of men, to not fully trust the men that they do not know? Because the reactions we get frequently blame us, or minimize the experience, or make it like we’re having a massive overreaction, because bitches be lyin’, amirite? To use my own story as an example, many people would say that he wasn’t using a real weapon, that that plastic knife couldn’t really do much damage, that he was clearly just bluffing. And that may be absolutely true, but you’re missing the point. He invaded my boundaries, and threatened me while cornering me in a space that I could not escape from. Could I have done something different? Well, my “reasonable” alternatives were not very reasonable. Tell him to piss off? Possible, but that might merely inflame his temper. Remember, I didn’t really know this guy, and I had no idea what he was like. How could I know what his reaction would be? He had already refused to respect me and my space by not allowing me past him. I could have forced my way out, I suppose, but who’s to say he would not have simply spun it to make it seem like I was the perpetrator, trying to physically move him out of the way? Who would believe me? And if you’re asking these questions, you already have your answer.

The common misunderstanding is that I think that all men are rapists. That’s simply not the case. But I will not deny that I am wary of strange men, and I will not apologize for that, because until this toxic culture changes, I cannot reasonably afford to be anything else. I can’t afford to give strange men the benefit of the doubt when they’re being creepy or making me uneasy, because on the chance that he does harass me or rape me? People won’t believe me, they will say that I shouldn’t have let him in, trusted him, etc. And that is something I am not sure I can bear. I have already had experiences of sexual harassment minimized before. Not too long ago, even, in my current job in retail, I had a man come into my store while I was standing at the clothing racks, lean into me, and whisper “hi” into my ear, so close that I could literally feel his breath on my ear. And when I told people? All the excuses came out for him. He must have thought you were someone he knew, he must have not known what he was doing, blah blah blah. Okay, this was a grown man in his forties, much larger than me, and I’m the twenty-something female retail worker, whose job it is to never tell customers how horrible they’re being, even if they’re being absolutely insufferable. Who had the power in that situation, me or him?

And if you’re still sad about your hurt feelings? I don’t know what else to tell you. Do I think you’re a rapist? No. Do I think you’re a harasser? No. But do I know for sure? Of course not. And you’d likely be the first person to say, after I was harassed, that I should have known better, that I shouldn’t have been hanging around with strange men. The problem is, until I actually know you, you’re the strange man, too. If you’re not cool with that, maybe you can see why this toxic rape culture needs to change. Because I deserve better. Because little girls and teenage girls and middle-aged women and old women and trans women deserve better.

Because we all deserve better.

Sociological Sexism: Male Sexism Doesn’t Exist

Okay, I’ll preface this post by saying that I know many of you may have clicked on the link because you thought that the post sounded inflammatory and you wanted to know just how I get off saying that men are never discriminated against.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say that I am not saying that, nor will I ever. I’ll spell it out right now, even: men can be discriminated against on the basis of their maleness, and that is wrong. It’s a bit sad that I even have to say that, but people are always eager to demonize feminists on this point. Plus, this post is going to be about male privilege…which I know is a sore spot for a lot of people, especially male people, because they frequently either want to deny that it exists because it would be a huge source of guilt, or they acknowledge that it does and do end up feeling a lot of guilt over existing in that sphere of privilege (this doubles, triples and quadruples if they are white, heterosexual, cisgendered men).

Privilege guilt is another topic for another day, but let me summarize it: privilege guilt is counter-productive and makes the topic about the oppressors, rather than the oppressed.

Now, you might be wondering: how is she going to say that sexism against men doesn’t exist? It seems obvious that some people are prejudiced against men, because they are men. (Just look at feminists, amirite?!)

And the answer—if you are indeed wondering this—is that I don’t think that you, or indeed, most people who haven’t taken any sociology or gender studies courses, understand what we mean when we discuss “sexism.” And I’d like to say that sexism has two meanings and two uses, one of which is much more common than the other. The first definition of sexism is the colloquial definition that we all grew up hearing: sexism is the discrimination against a person, based solely upon that person’s sex and/or gender. And this definition is technically correct, in that that is what the word means in that dull, dictionary-sense. It is plainly defined as that. Were we to live in a world absent of privilege, it would be possible for sexism to be implemented against anyone, of any sex, of any gender.

But.

But we don’t live in a world absent of privilege. This is where the sociological definition of sexism becomes important, because although the two definitions definitely overlap, they talk about two distinct things. The colloquial definition strictly deals with what the word means in the abstract; the sociological definition deals with what the word means in practice. This is crucial, because in practice, sexism requires two main ingredients: prejudice and privilege. Without prejudice, privilege (read: power) is unattainable…but without privilege, prejudice cannot be implemented on a systemic level. Prejudice is useless without privilege, and privilege is unreachable without prejudice. Given that the two need each other so much to reinforce a hierarchy, one without the other is not powerful…that is, it is not oppressive.

So when we say that it isn’t possible to be sexist against men, what we are saying is essentially this: men have both societal prejudice and societal privilege, and this makes them capable of oppressing women. It is certainly possible that a woman may be prejudiced against men on the basis of their sex and/or gender. But because women are the underprivileged class—meaning that they do not have the privilege and societal power that men do—they are not capable of implementing this prejudice on a systemic level. And because sexism, from a sociological standpoint, is the implementation of gender-based prejudice on a large, society-wide scale, women being prejudiced against men is not sexism because on the whole, society values men over women. Not only that, but this act of prizing maleness above all is actually embedded into the fabric of our society, of our culture itself. Because the prizing of femaleness is decidedly not embedded into our culture, it is impossible to use privilege to oppress men, simply for the fact that female privilege doesn’t exist.

Women simply don’t have the power, from a sociological perspective, to be able to oppress as well as be prejudiced. It’s oppression on a systemic level that makes an “ism”, including sexism. By that same token, minorities cannot be racist against white people, LGBT people cannot be heterophobic, working class people can’t be classist, etc—and it’s all to do with how much power these people in society have. They don’t have much, or at least they don’t have enough to counteract the overall privilege that men, white people, heterosexual people, wealthy people, etc, have by default. In order to be an “ism”, sociologically, you need to be able to back your prejudice with oppressive force…which none of these groups actually have, because to have oppressive force, you need to either have pre-existing privilege, or you need to create a privileged class.

Could the sociological (read: systemic) sexism against men exist? Yes, of course it could—theoretically, anyway (it’s never happened before in Western society). However, in order for it to exist, the entire power gradient would need to be completely reversed, making women the privileged class and men the underprivileged. This would require a huge paradigm shift, one that isn’t very likely to occur—at least not at the present, or any time in the foreseeable future, because male has been the privileged gender for thousands of years. Most people don’t understand that it takes a LONG time to undo thousands of years of oppression. We’ve made a ton of progress in 100 years, but we’re still not there, and guess what? It’s understandable, even though it’s not okay, that we’re not there yet, because overall social change takes a lot of time and there have been and will be a ton of growing pains along the way.

So, can you use the word “sexism” to describe discrimination against men? Yes, of course—after all, the colloquial usage is by far the more popular and widely-used one. I use it myself, in everyday conversation. But understand that when feminists or sociologists use the word “sexism”, and they are speaking about sociological trends or patterns, they may not mean what you mean. And if they say to you, “sexism against men doesn’t exist”, try not to be offended. They aren’t trying to deny that men suffer from gender discrimination sometimes. They aren’t trying to deny, for example, that you were a man who didn’t get a job because you were a man, and maybe that employer has a total hate-on for guys. I’m sure that has happened before, and that’s wrong, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a feminist that was okay with that. But don’t make a conversation about women about you and why your feelings are hurt at the suggestion that you or your friends or your family aren’t discriminated against. This isn’t the Oppression Olympics, and more than that, it’s wrong to make a minority group’s problems about you and your problems, because most of the time, your problems come from a place of privilege, and that privilege is used to being able to dominate a conversation about oppression. Having privilege is not your fault, but using it to step on others is.

At the end of the day, we all need to understand one another a little better, listen a little better, and hear each other’s stories better than we do now. Men aren’t the only ones who need to be aware of the role that they play in reinforcing systemic sexism. Women also play a pretty crucial role in keeping the Misogyny Machine up and running, and without internalized misogyny, it would be much harder for sexism to exist. So do yourself a favour: ask if you don’t know. Feminazis have enough work to do already without you being willfully ignorant, what with riding around on our broomsticks cackling, TP’ing men’s houses, and actually speaking aloud to voice opinions about things….

Virtually Worthless: The Tragedy of Rape Apologism

Content note: this post contains content pertaining to rape and rape culture. If you feel that you’re not in a place where you can successfully handle reading about this sensitive and often triggering topic, then I suggest you stop reading immediately.

I am disgusted.

You may have heard about the Stuebenville rape case. If you haven’t, the link sufficiently details it. Two high school footballers raped a 16-year-old girl at a series of parties. They drugged her and performed sexual acts on her while she was unconscious. They even documented their fun, by recording it on video and taking photographs. Nothing like a little rape to end the perfect night out!

Of course, I am disgusted by the story itself, but to my horror, CNN has documented the trial and expressed sympathy for these two young men, whose “lives were destroyed by the verdict.” Oh, boohoo, I feel so sorry for them, that their horrific, violent actions caused them to go to a (juvenile) prison, where they will spend 1 to 2 years. They will then be labeled as sex offenders for the rest of their lives (perish the thought that such a horrific crime should follow them forever and make them sorry for doing it!).

You know you’re living in a rape culture when a major news broadcaster shows sympathy at the “tragedy” of this whole case, while never once mentioning the young rape victim, who now must live with the overwhelming trauma of the incident for the rest of her life. Who may now be triggered into mental illness, who may now face terrible stigma and pain, who will certainly now need an intense amount of therapy and support to make it through this incredibly difficult time.

You know you’re living in a rape culture when the fact that these young men were “football stars” makes it somehow more okay that they’re also rapists. You know you’re living in a rape culture when the rape is considered a tragedy to the rapists, because now they can’t carry on with their lives as before. Because they were footballers with “their whole lives ahead of them”, they’re suddenly exempt from our judgment. 

You know you’re living in a rape culture when male privilege rules, and it rules in the form of the entitlement to women’s bodies. Because she didn’t verbally refuse, it’s not rape.

We as a society have spent so long saying “no means no”, and I think that that was originally a valuable message. But it’s become twisted and vague, it’s become disempowering and it’s become a loophole for rapists and potential rapists alike. Did these kids know they were raping someone? Quite possibly not. But they should have. We should have taught them better, because there are a million other young people out there just like them. 

Let me tell you a little story, a second-hand anecdote, if you will. (Before I get into it, I just want to note that I have permission from my friend to share this story, and here is her blog, where she shares it herself.) I have a dear friend who was raped when we were teenagers in high school, by her high school boyfriend, whom she had been with for several years. They had been hanging out together one night, had an argument as they often did, and she fell asleep. She woke up to her rape. It was, as you can imagine, an experience that was so terrifying and traumatizing that it completely changed her life.

I’m sad to say that this isn’t unusual. It’s a pretty typical rape scenario, really. Well, fast-forward to this year. This same boyfriend, after my friend broke up with him, after three plus years, writes her an e-mail. Says, hey, what’s up, how’re you doing. And my friend is rightfully shocked, appalled, that this man—this man who ruined her life for a good while—has the nerve, the gall, to send her a casual e-mail message. He doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness. He doesn’t mention the rape…at all. I think my friend imagined that he would be at least remorseful, but the message made it apparent that he was not. I think the question that haunted her (and me), was, of course, why not? How can you do such a thing to another human being, how can you ruin the life of someone you professed to care so much about—even professed to love—and feel no remorse?

There are probably many reasons, of course, including deeply-rooted psychological reasons that I am not qualified to speculate on. But I will say this: I think that this rapist, and these Steubenville rapists, have a lot in common. 

I genuinely don’t think that Paul (not his real name) realized that what he did was rape. I think he understood that what he did was wrong, that he took advantage of my friend when she was asleep, and therefore vulnerable. But she was his girlfriend. She had consented before, right? There had been some times when she said yes.

This is the legacy of “no means no.” Because boys like Paul understand that no means no, but they don’t understand that the absence of “no” does not constitute a “yes.” If you have sex with someone while they are asleep, you are raping them. If you have sex with someone while they are unconscious, you are raping them. If you have sex with someone without anything but their full, enthusiastic consent? Your status as a non-rapist may be in jeopardy.

I realize that this may sound radical to some people. So I have to ask, every time? What if they say yes and mean no? And this seems radical because of the toxic rape culture in which we live, that says that consent is just too hard, and not that important anyway, because the woman was a slut, or she was drunk, or she was asking for it…you know, all the things we’ve all heard over and over again.

Let me spell it out for others out there like the Steubenville rapists, for those like Paul, who don’t really “know” what rape is: if you don’t know if the person is consenting? Do not continue. Do not persist. Do not pursue this encounter, unless you want to risk being a rapist. If you’re drunk, if she’s drunk? Don’t continue. The worst thing that can happen by not continuing is not having sex, and the worst thing that can happen by continuing is that you’re a rapist.

The best way to stamp out rape is to a) identify rape and teach people about what rape is, how rape culture works, etc, b) promote an environment where enthusiastic consent is considered the cornerstone in sexual relationships of any kind, c) identify rapists as the human beings that they are, not as monsters but as people who also walk among us “regular” folks, and d) create a world in which it is impossible for rapists to hide or to conceal their behaviour, to pass off the blame on their victims—in other words, hold rapists responsible, and protect survivors from the scrutiny of the courts, of the media, and of the people in our society who would do them further grievous injury with their astonishing and inexcusable victim-blaming words and actions.

We as a society are not responsible for the crime of rape. Rape is the individual choice of the rapist. But we are responsible for educating potential rapists (which, by the way, is probably a shocking number of us) on being an “accidental” rapist. We are responsible for supporting the rape survivors of our society. We are responsible for the messages we send about rape, and we are responsible for how we deal with victim-blaming, how we respond to it. We are responsible for our own narrative regarding rape, and right now, our narrative is thoroughly screwed up. Our narrative is one in which rape is a kind of accident, a tragedy for the rapist, like getting in a really bad car accident or being suddenly disabled, oh how his life will never be the same again, how sad about the life that he has now lost.

Because you know why my friend never prosecuted Paul? Because she didn’t want to ruin his life. There’s your evidence. Exhibit A. Didn’t want to ruin his life, his reputation. Is it my friend’s fault for thinking that at the time? No, because apparently, a lot of us, including the folks at CNN, seem to think so, too, judging by their coverage of the story. He has worked so hard and look at that! He tripped and his penis miraculously fell into that poor girl, and he had to continue! There was no other way, Your Honour. “He had his whole life ahead of him. He had plans.” Well, you know what, when you have great plans, it’s probably a good idea not to rape people. It might interfere with those plans.

One final thought: imagine if these boys had not just raped this girl, but they had also murdered her. Would CNN have covered the story differently? I’m willing to bet, oh, probably most of what I own, that they would have. They would not have been crying over what a terrible loss it was to no longer have these boys as a part of society (for a few years). They would not have been saying what a tragedy it was that their futures were ruined. How messed up is that, society? How messed up is it that until you actually kill a woman, she’s collateral damage? Rape? No big deal, she lived, didn’t she? She’ll live.

I am not suggesting that rape is on par with murder, but that—finally—you know you’re living in a rape culture when up and until a woman’s life is already gone and cannot be saved, it’s considered virtually worthless. And how when a woman is raped and lives, the damage to her is considered a small price to pay to set free the rapists of the world who don’t look and act like what we expect—the ones that look and behave like actual human beings who do other things besides raping people, who are also someone’s children, parents, siblings, friends, partners, and relatives. When a woman is raped and lives—in other words, when there is a definite opportunity for recovery, where her life might be saved—we look the other way. Her worth is only apparent when she is already gone, when her life is unsalvageable—when her crying family and friends appear on our television sets, and then finally we see her personhood, we see her humanity. And by then, it’s already far too late.

There’s the real tragedy.

The Giant Game of Jenga: A Few Blocks to Oblivion

I know it’s been ages! Here’s me getting on my soapbox again, but not for the usual reasons (I expect that will come again soon enough).

There’s a film you simply must see. My professor showed it to our class in second-year sociology, and it’s brilliant. So, if you haven’t seen it, do go and watch Sut Jhully’s Advertising and the End of the World. It’s a truly eye-opening piece, and Jhully does a wonderful job of illustrating his point.

So. If you’ve reached this point and haven’t clicked the link yet, you’ll want to, because this post probably won’t make sense if you don’t watch it. Or it will, but it’ll be enriched by the context of the film. Go watch it, already!

Today, we’re going to discuss a new topic for this blog: The Environment. Gasp! The environment? I’m expecting the global warming deniers to crawl out of the woodwork at any moment now. The environment, especially in recent years, has been the subject of a lot of misinformation, and much debate. Debate about what, exactly, I’m not certain; it seems to me that the question of whether or not saving the environment is important, seems fairly straightforward to me. (Perhaps a better question to ask is this: “Do we [human race] still want to be alive in the next 100 years, or not?”)

It seems fairly straightforward that things like money, the economy, standards of living, etc—while all important issues—pale in comparison to environmental issues, because at least to me, it seems equally obvious that none of those things matter if there’s no planet for them to exist on. Moreover, the debates over environmental issues seem to, most often, involve science vs. denial…which is a real shame. For example, when I’ve brought up the fact that at some point in the not-so-distant future, we will be out of oil, people say, “Oh, they’ve been saying that for years. It will never really happen.”

What’s so interesting about this response is that, if scientists have been saying this for years, you’d think someone might be inclined to listen to them. After all, the fact that we are depleting the planet’s resources at a rapid rate—faster than the planet could possibly restore them naturally—is a scientific fact. It is the consensus reached by environmental scientists globally. They wouldn’t be giving us these warnings without a grain of truth to any of it. So, why the denial?

Simply put: selfishness, I think. We live in a capitalist society, a society which depends solely upon production and consumption (this is covered extensively in Jhully’s video presentation). In other words, that familiar concept of supply and demand. On the surface, maybe this seems like a good idea…and it was, even, when we had, oh, a third of Earth’s current population or less. But we now have over 7 billion people on a planet that is struggling to support us. For every person in the world to live as we do in the Western world, we would need three Earths. That’s an awful lot. And here’s where the environment becomes not just about survival, but also about social justice.

Have you ever played a game called Jenga? It was popular when I was a kid, and I played it quite a lot with my best friend. Simply put, Jenga is a game in which a bunch of small blocks are stacked, alternating, to form a tower of blocks. Players take turns carefully pulling the blocks out of the tower, trying not to knock it over. Eventually, of course, this becomes impossible as more blocks are removed, and whoever manages to topple the tower loses the game. The game was a great source of fun for my friend and I, and near the end of the game, when the tower teetered precariously at the edge of the coffee table, we would be afraid to breathe in its general direction, for fear of upsetting it.

Think of the environment as a giant Jenga game. When the tower is first built, it is sturdy and strong. The tower is a sum of its parts; each block serves a purpose in the overall structure. Let’s say that you then remove a block—and we’ll call that block “fresh water.” But it’s only one block. The tower is still standing, in fact it may even still be quite sturdy. It won’t fall if you just leave it. But this is Jenga, and your partner has to take a turn. They remove a second block—this time it’s “forests”—and you’re left with a similar result: a slightly less stable tower, but overall, it’s still in fairly good condition. But then you remove a third, a fourth, a fifth block…and suddenly, the tower starts to sway a little. Just a little, but enough to make you worry a bit. Your partner scoffs at you, and you keep playing, and playing, and playing, until you’re left with what my friend and I always ended up with—a skeleton tower that looks ready to fall at a moment’s notice. We used to hold our breath, afraid to breathe wrong, lest we send the tower crashing down and be deemed the loser.

The funny thing about Jenga is that it’s such an inevitable game; the end is so inevitable, so predictable…in fact, it’s the same end, each and every time. It makes sense, of course. Common sense that if you remove the supports of a structure, one by one, it will always fall eventually. We knew this. We knew it when we began the game. We knew it well before the end finally came. Yet despite that wretched inevitability, we were certainly always surprised when the tower finally did fall. How much could we get away with? How many blocks could we afford to pull? You can try to put the blocks back, of course. But you will find that the blocks are easier to pull than they are to replace…after all, when trying to put a block back, you may upset the rest, and the whole tower comes tumbling down around you. And the object of the game is to pull the blocks, not replace them, to get away with as much as you can. And then you can claim victory when you don’t topple the tower, when someone else does, even though you are as much to blame for its demise.

Think of every ecosystem as a Jenga game, and it becomes even more complex. What I’m trying to illustrate is this: we know not what we do. We cannot predict the outcome of our actions, destructive or restorative in nature. We lack the information, we lack the intelligence, we lack the education to understand what we’re doing. And the problem is that in our system—our capitalist, consumerist society—there’s only one set of rules, only one object to the game. And that object is to take as many blocks as you can, without toppling the tower, taking just enough to keep it standing…but breathe wrong, and you’ll be in trouble, my friend. We take and consume, and we consume to our absolute detriment, to our end, because our human propensity to destroy ourselves is stronger than our desire to save ourselves, to be altruistic, to love ourselves and others. We’ve built our lives around an illusion of love, by obsessing over objects, over things. Love makes us happy. What we, as humans, want more than anything, is to love and to be loved. Love is our greatest asset. It may be our only asset. Love is what’s worth living for. We believe that our possessions make us happy, and we show it through advertising, through consumption, through corporate greed, through marketing. We are fundamentally a society that believes materialism brings true joy. Overwhelmingly, as Jhully states, it does not. Love makes us happy. Connection makes us happy.

Human loneliness and longing are forever engraved into our nature and our history. But instead of assuaging that loneliness with contact, with love, we fill it with objects. And by doing so, drift further away from the very thing that would relieve us from our loneliness, satisfy our longing: others. Products have cheapened our relationships (engagement rings), they have invaded our lives, they have invaded our most private, intimate, deep moments of connection with others—be it a partner, family, friends, whoever you want. And with this, products have also invaded our concern for ourselves and others…they have made us cynical and jaded concerning the environment. Because who cares about environmental issues, if it means we can’t have our stuff anymore?

As we run out of resources to produce our stuff, we will look to other regions of the world for “help.” Sometimes, they will give it to us. Other times, they will not be so willing, and be prepared for the idea of war, because it will end that way if things continue the way that they are. The world’s top powers will seek to control any and all remaining resources. The poor will become more downtrodden. The very real human beings of the third world will have to forfeit their lives so that we can drive Toyota and eat McDonald’s. This is the cost. This is the price we will pay, and are paying, for our stuff. This is what it costs to produce our stuff. Human life. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Pain. Suffering. War. If this is too real for you, you’re not real enough for me. We will force others to pay for our selfishness. We’ve done it before. We’ll do it again. We have a choice, and so far, we have almost always made the wrong ones.

Do not misunderstand me. This is not an individual problem. This is a collective problem, and needs to be treated as such. It is not my personal responsibility to save the environment, nor is it yours. It is our collective responsibility as a society, as a people, to find solutions. Because a handful of the population driving hybrid cars, recycling, and eating organic is not going to even make a dent. Those things may be important, but as long as we continue to rely on non-renewable, pollution-ridden substances, we will never be free, and we will never be safe. The next century may determine how our lives, and everyone after us, lives (or doesn’t live at all). This message cannot be ignored, but it is. By governments everywhere. By citizens everywhere. We will die on the hill of our stuff before we change…this is what I fear. I cannot, in good conscience, bring children into a world that doesn’t see fit to save them. (Part of why I have resolved never to have any, among many other reasons.)

Be careful. The end of growth is coming, and soon. Better to accept it now, while we may still have some time. Even to that end, we are unsure. After all, it’s hard to tell when you’re only a few blocks away from oblivion.