An anxious introvert calls her Congresspeople

Before November, I had never called an elected official.  Way back in high school, I wrote a letter to my town council, about something tiny—the safety of a local intersection, I think it was.  It was for a class assignment and not something I felt super-strongly about.  My councilperson delivered a written response in person to my house, which was both awesome and terrifying.   A few years later, I emailed my representatives at all levels, local through federal, asking for pins to trade at an international event.  (Is this still a thing one can do?  I don’t know.)  All were quite responsive; I got several bags of nice pins.

But calling?  I hate making phone calls.  The social anxiety I have about talking to people in person is an order of magnitude worse on the phone, where I have no visual cues and it’s hard to hear what people are saying half the time.  This phone-hate is not uncommon, I gather, among anxious folk and among introverts more broadly.

People in the know, however, say that calling is the most effective way to get your point across to an elected official, short of showing up at an in-person event when they’re in town.  So now, I call.

It’s still a lot of work for me.  I have to write out what I’m going to say (or find a script I can use), with adjustments for leaving a voicemail versus talking to a live person.  I have to spend a solid ten minutes just sitting in silent isolation with my phone and my script, mentally preparing.  And then I have to decompress afterward, for however long that takes.

At the same time, I have to combat the thoughts that tell me I’m not doing enough.  There are so many things I could be doing, so many calls I could be making.  There are activism messages saying I ought to be making longer, more confrontational phone calls.  The amount of input that I have to sort through to figure out what I should do and say is overwhelming.

To combat all the different directions of anxiety, I try to remember a few things:

1.  Doing something is better than doing nothing.  The perfect is the enemy of the good, and all that.  Right now, my choice isn’t between “make a long, involved call” and “make a short, here’s-my-message call.”  It’s between “make a short, here’s-my-message call” and “don’t call.”  So I do the thing that I can do, which is less than some people can do, but still a thing done.  Similarly, when I put in a solid effort to call about something and get only busy signals and full voicemails, I’ve given myself permission to not feel bad about emailing instead.  A message in a less-noticed medium is better than no message at all.

2.  Focus is good.  Basically another take on point #1.  I can’t make calls every day—I would be a constant nervous wreck.  And I don’t have the mental space to keep track of every single issue.  So I don’t: instead, I pick the issues I’m going to follow in-depth.  (For the curious, these are health care / women’s health / reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ equality.  These may not be your personal top-priority issues, and that’s OK.  Point 2 in this piece has a good explanation of why.)  Regardless of issue, I also call my Congresspeople on the rare occasions when they do something I approve of, because positive feedback is good, too.

3.  Those people answering the phone?  That’s their job.  They are specifically supposed to be listening to me and passing on my message in some appropriate fashion.  I am not imposing on their lives.

4.  I’m not the weirdest person who’s ever called.  Even when I’m nervous, even if I trip over my words, I figure the person answering the phone has heard worse.  I’m polite, and I’m calling about something that’s reasonably connected to reality.  (Note that by “polite,” I don’t mean “agreeable,” I mean “recognizes that the staffer on the phone is another human being.”)

5.  I’m not alone.  This is relevant for both external impact (my call doesn’t mean much on its own, but as part of a hundred calls, it matters) and internal turmoil (loads of people have varying degrees of phone anxiety).  When I’m freaking out, I review the helpful “How to call your reps when you have social anxiety“—it reminds me of my strategy, and reassures me that others are dealing with this too.

I tell myself these things, and I keep going.

I’m sick and I need to complain about it

I’ve been down with the flu all week, and it sucks.  Sinus congestion, headaches, body aches, low-grade fever, and, of course, fatigue.  Just walking around drains my energy.

I’m getting awfully darn tired of being sick.  I got hit with some other flu-ish thing, slightly milder but still exhausting, in mid-December, and haven’t been properly well since.  Unlike everything we caught last winter, neither of these illnesses seem to have originated in daycare; Little Boy was also sick this week, but with pink eye and an ear infection, both of which are bacterial.  (Lucky kid—he gets antibiotics.)

Fortunately, your basic flu isn’t a threat to a developing embryo.  Unfortunately, my pregnancy nausea is now in full swing, and seems to especially flare up whenever I lie down.  So that’s fun.

My mental state is understandably not great, a combination of general misery, hormone-induced anxiety, and frustration at not being able to get anything done.  I’ve been continually grazing on whatever food sounds good, and it’s triggering my body image issues hard.  I feel fat and gross and ugly, and too sick to do anything about it.

Here’s hoping the next week is better—well, OK, let me rephrase that: here’s hoping that whatever crap the next week brings, I’m at least physically well enough to start trying to deal with it.

Two pink lines

A positive pregnancy test.We have news.

We’re very happy, of course—we wanted this—but also kind of terrified.  It is a totally ridiculous time for us to have another child, but it is also the best of all possible times.  It may be the only possible time.

Early pregnancy is a time of waiting.  It’s too early for an ultrasound to tell us that everything’s going as it should.  Too early to see the flicker of a heartbeat on the screen.  The embryo is a tiny grain of rice, busily doing things that are entirely out of our control.

My body knows it’s there, though.  In the days before the test read positive, my face broke out like a repeat performance of puberty, and I lost the ability to fall asleep in a reasonable period of time.  The above paragraph originally noted that it was too early for morning sickness, but today my stomach started to notice the rising hormone levels and complain.  More symptoms will come, and my body will stretch and change as it did before.  And it will be scary and uncomfortable and wonderful and awful and amazing.

Hopefully.

Grow well, little one.

A pile of new books, 2017 edition

A stack of nine books received for Christmas 2016.

My personal library did well this holiday season, thanks in large part to my husband buying up half my Amazon wish list.  I also just received my much-anticipated, limited-edition, signed copy of Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi, but that didn’t make it into the Christmas-gift pile because I pre-ordered it for myself back in July.

(Side note: In unintentional preparation for reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I’m currently re-watching the A&E miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice, and it is delightful.)

What are you looking forward to reading next?

Mrs. HusbandsFullName does not exist, so stop sending her things

Christmas-card season brings out one of my long-running pet peeves: envelopes addressed to non-existent people.  These are typically sent by my husband’s distant cousins, although we just got one from my grandmother and she really should know better.

Who are these non-existent people?  Mr. and Mrs. HusbandsFirstName LastName.  Or, because typing that is long and unwieldy, imagine that my name is Jane Smith and my husband’s name is Joe Smith, and we’re getting cards addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Joe Smith.

Mrs. Joe Smith is not a person.  That is nobody’s legal name, and it’s not 1925, so nobody uses that name socially.

(To add insult to injury, Mr. Joe Smith is not a person either—my husband worked damn hard for that PhD and if you insist on using a title, use the right one.)

I’ve pushed back on this a little with past wedding invitations, only to be told that it remains “correct etiquette” to address couples using only the man’s full name.  OK, well:

1.  Doing something because “that’s the way it’s always been done” is one of the most foolish reasons for doing something.  Especially when the reason it’s always been done that way is sexism.

2.  Does anyone in the year 2016 actually care if your invitations are addressed in the official, Emily-Post-approved* fashion?  For our wedding, I adapted the “correct” form into something that used everyone’s full names (think “Dr. Joe and Mrs. Jane Smith”) and zero relatives complained.

*(Side note: My parents owned a copy of The New Emily Post’s Etiquette, publication date 1975, and I read the entire thing—all 978 pages—in my teens, over the course of a month of 40-minute bus rides to school.  It was… interesting.)

Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this is Not a Big Deal, but it remains highly irritating.  Especially when it’s such an easy fix!  There are a multitude of non-obnoxious ways to address cards to me and my husband:

Joe and Jane Smith

Jane and Joe Smith

The Smiths

Dr. and Mrs. Smith

Dr. Joe and Mrs. Jane Smith

So simple!  You can even use fewer words!  And next year, when I’ve (fingers-crossed) finished my PhD, you can use “The Doctors Smith,” which is, let’s face it, the coolest-sounding option of all.

A honest attempt at giving thanks

It’s hard to feel thankful right now, when my worldview is so cynical and depressed and afraid, but it’s Thanksgiving and I thought it might help to try.

I’m thankful for a healthy child, who’s learning to string words into sentences.  Who dances with me, and who takes the job of putting dirty clothes in the hamper very seriously.

I’m thankful for my husband, who is there to hold me when I cry and who makes the best green bean casserole in America.  Who insists that he isn’t brave, but is.

I’m thankful for my parents—thankful that they are alive and well, thankful that we figure each other out a little more each year, and thankful that they took the news of their son-in-law’s gender identity with grace and love.

I’m thankful for the quiet peace of the sunrise on my run this morning.

I’m thankful for my legs and my lungs that let me run, even if they sometimes falter.

I’m thankful for the way the winter sun shines bright on my face when I’m at the kitchen sink.

I’m thankful for iTunes, for portable music players, and for the aux cable in my car.

I’m thankful for this house, for its space and its light, for the park across the street, and for our generally wonderful landlords.

I’m thankful that I’ve got another paper under review at a journal, bringing me one step closer to finishing my PhD.

I’m thankful for the friends I’ve made over the years, who pop up to check on me when I least expect it.

I’m thankful for the folks I only know online, for smart conversations and shared righteous anger and links to all kinds of new and interesting things.

I’m thankful for cups of tea and glasses of wine.

I’m thankful for all the superhero shows on the CW, because they bring me laughter and hope.

I’m thankful that I get to spend this year’s Thanksgiving in a T-shirt and sweatpants, with no stress and no small talk.

I’m thankful that I don’t have to worry about the money for little things, at least for now.

I guess maybe I feel thankful after all.

How to be an ally—an example

I want to tell you a story about how a white man in a position of power used his white male seniority for good.  It was not a huge thing—there was no marching on the streets, no boycotts, no petitions—but it made a great deal of difference to this junior-level woman.

I am a graduate student in a university department that works closely with several other departments, sub-departments, non-profit organizations, and related groups.   It’s very common for emails of professional relevance to go out to all of these groups at once.  (It’s not uncommon for different people to send the same email to everyone, resulting in us all getting the same message about NSF funding three or four times, but that’s another story.)

Last week, one of these out-to-everyone emails stirred up some controversy.  The head of Dept. A decided that the email (about a petition to our national professional society) was overly political and therefore should not be sent over Dept. A’s email list.  This ruling seemed inconsistent with Dept. A’s prior practices, and in the resulting discussion, the head of Dept. A decided to retroactively disapprove of emails that had been sent in the past.

Specifically, the head of Dept. A decided that he was no longer OK with a month-old email that had urged senior employees to take steps against sexual and racial harassment.

After a few more general affirmations from mid-level staff on the importance of diversity and human rights, a different mid-level employee told us we were all being idiots to even care about this, and the email chain went silent.

It hurt.  When the senior people don’t stand up for you, it hurts.  When you’re a woman or other marginalized person in a junior position and the message you hear is “don’t talk about harassment, don’t talk about human rights, don’t talk about diversity”—it hurts.

I waited for someone to say something.  For hours—an eternity in email time—no one did.

I emailed the head of Dept. B, my department, and got back a wishy-washy bureaucratic brush-off.

I guess I wasn’t really that surprised.

Then, almost out of nowhere, the head of Org. C stepped in.  We rarely hear from him; he is one of many white men who hide in the upper floors of our building and are very busy with their own things.   This time, though, he was emphatic.  He pointed out, politely and firmly, that combating sexual harassment was not a political statement and he was very concerned that Dept. A’s new interpretation of the email rules would affect the safety of his colleagues.

I actually cried.  OK, I cry a lot, and had already been crying throughout this incident, but now I was crying out of a huge sense of relief.  Somebody out there has my back.  Somebody in charge actually cares. 

Some might say that the head of Org. C could’ve gone further, that he should’ve stood up for the spirit of human rights and diversity presented in the original email, the one that first set off all the controversy.  I disagree.  Had he done so, I think the arguments would have continued, the point would not have been made so strongly, and the result may not have been as useful.  By choosing to fight for the older email, the one specifically about harassment, he was able to draw a clear, hard, and basically unarguable line that talking about harassment has to be OK.

The head of Org. C was an ally.  He used his status—as a white person, as a man, as a head—to stand up for the rest of us.  It was just an email, and yet it had an enormous effect on my comfort level at the university.

I wrote him a thank-you, not because allies need thank-yous, but because I like thanking people who’ve had an impact on me.  I also think it might help down the line: if he ever has to defend his position, he can say that he heard from grad students about the importance of the issue.

Has anyone been an ally for you lately?  Tell me about it in the comments.

Brain chemistry in the age of anxiety

I’ve had plenty of opportunities over the last 12 days to observe how my body and mind respond to stress, and I’ve learned something really interesting.  Specifically, my “mental illness anxiety” is quite different from my “fear/rage/stress anxiety.”  This is a useful thing for me to know personally, but it also relates to the way society has trouble understanding that mental illness is an illness and not just a bad day.

The mental illness is irrational.  It can be triggered by anything or nothing.  I’ve written before about what this anxiety feels like.  It is paralysis.  It is wanting to make my brain just stop it, accompanied by a frantic search for what is bothering me so I can make it go away.  Except there isn’t any particular thing causing it, and so my brain just keeps searching and panicking and pulling up every possible thing that could be a problem and making them seem worse and awful.

The fear-anxiety is rational, and so it manifests in my brain in a very different way.  Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and I cry in grief and terror and collapse for a while.  Often, though, it’s motivating.  Instead of freezing up and freaking out, my fight-or-flight mechanism actually kicks in correctly and I make plans to fight or flee.

Oddly, my physical reactions to these two anxieties are distinct, too.  In my post about anxiety, I wrote that it’s “a tightness in your chest, your arms, your jaw.”  If it’s really bad, it almost feels hard to breathe.  This is the reaction to the irrational malfunctionings of my brain.  The rational fear?  It leaves my chest alone but knots my stomach to the point where I cannot eat.  It twists my guts in knots—the same kind of knots that show up before the starting gun of a race.

In one case, my brain is reacting the way it has evolved to do.  It senses a threat, and it responds.  This is normal.  This is correct.

In the other, my neurochemicals are just totally out of control.  This is the illness.

They are different.

Because it might not be OK

We located an on-campus fallout shelter yesterday.

I wasn’t planning on looking for one, but my friend mentioned that one of the buildings she walks past on her way in, a building constructed in 1966, has one of the old fallout shelter signs on its exterior.  So later, on my way back from an errand, I stopped by.

There were no similar signs inside, but there were large floor maps posted by the elevators.  Wandering around the basement, I discovered a large central room whose only entrance was blocked by heavy vault doors.  I guess I don’t know for sure that it’s the fallout shelter, but the circumstantial evidence seems pretty strong.

I filed this information away in my brain, next to the memory bank that says, “Your desk is heavy and has three metal sides; if you hear gunshots, get under it and stay hidden.”

Of course we’re joking about the fallout shelter being a legitimate emergency plan—for one thing, I’m sure they pulled the supplies out twenty years ago.

Of course we’re joking.

Aren’t we?

I was literally vomiting on Wednesday morning.  The seven shots of tequila I had Tuesday night might’ve had something to do with it.  At least as a grad student, I could stay at home all day and nobody cared.  I could hide under the covers and hope that maybe when I woke up, something would’ve changed, the way I used to hope I’d wake up at Hogwarts when I was 11.

I’ve gathered myself together since then, put on a shell of “I can do today,” and resumed daily life.  But I’m walking a mental tightrope, a thin wire built of toddler smiles and hot cups of tea and the soothing banality of routine.  I’m trying to find the balance between hoping for the best and planning for the worst.

It’s tempting to tell myself that we’ll be OK, and that life will go on as it always has.  My family is white.  My marriage presents as, and for all legal purposes is, straight.  We have some money—enough to maybe buy stopgap health insurance if we need it, but maybe not enough to cover our medical needs if we can’t get health insurance at all.  Enough to move.  I have dual citizenship with Canada, I have a Canadian passport.  To be a bit melodramatic about it, they have to let me in.  We were already talking about it as an eventual destination anyway.

But.

But what if it’s not OK?

Because it might not be OK.

I don’t really know how to end this post.  I thought about listing all the ways it could be very not OK, and then I told myself I was being silly, and then I told myself no, all of those things could plausibly happen.

I thought about talking about how disgusted I am that so many American people could be such hypocrites.  About how all the stages of grief blend together into an angry ball of sorrow that refuses to “empathize” with ignorance and hate.  About how I wish I had more ways to fight back.

Instead I end here, open another browser tab, donate more money to Planned Parenthood, and wait to see what tomorrow brings.

There’s new advice for new parents

It’s been a busy week when it comes to telling new parents what they should and shouldn’t do.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released several new policies, and the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) reviewed and updated their recommendations on breastfeeding support.  Even though Little Boy is well past infancy, I’m still very interested in the science of infant care (and we might decide to have another kid), so I’ve been paying attention.  Let’s take a look at each of the new policies.

Kids & screen time

The general message of the AAP’s new policy statement on media use by young children is familiar: choose age-appropriate media, talk to your kids about what they’re watching, and turn off the TV (and other devices) before bed.  But there are a few key updates worth pointing out:

  • They’ve lowered the age of “no digital media” from 2 years to 18 months: you are now allowed to introduce “high-quality programming” to your 18-month-old if you so choose.  I’m pleased with this recommendation, because it agrees with my observations of child development.  Little Boy was 17 or 18 months old when he started really caring about Sesame Street.  By age 2, he knew all the characters and could identify the letter C (is for Cookie) in other contexts.  The old ‘kids don’t get anything out of TV before age 2’ policy seemed frankly incorrect.
  • For children under 18 months, the “avoid digital media” recommendation now explicitly says video-chatting is OK.  It’s a little thing—I mean, we all kind of figured that Skyping with Grandma didn’t really count as “screen time”—but it shows that the AAP put some thought into the various uses of media in modern society.
  • I also appreciate that this statement is included: “…there are intermittent times (eg, medical procedures, airplane flights) when media is useful as a soothing strategy…”

Safe infant sleep

Again, most of the recommendations in the AAP’s new policy statement on infant sleep safety are things we’ve heard before.  Babies should sleep on their backs.  Avoid blankets and soft bedding.  Don’t smoke.  Offer a pacifier (nobody quite knows why, but pacifier use is associated with lower rates of SIDS).  In a few cases, though, the details have changed:

  • Room-sharing (baby sleeps in parents’ room but in his/her own crib or bassinet) is now explicitly encouraged for the first 6–12 months.  Popular media articles seem to be treating this as a shocking new development, but the old safe sleep policy already recommended room-sharing, just without a specific length of time.  The science around this is up for debate, though; it’s not clear if the references cited by the AAP really show strong support for room-sharing.  (Some thoughts from educated folk here and here.)
  • The AAP remains very strongly against bed-sharing; however, they now admit that parents get really fricking tired caring for new babies and sometimes falling asleep with your baby in bed is the least bad option.  While bed-sharing is most definitely not for me, I appreciate their concession to reality:

    However, the AAP acknowledges that parents frequently fall asleep while feeding the infant. Evidence suggests that it is less hazardous to fall asleep with the infant in the adult bed than on a sofa or armchair, should the parent fall asleep.

Supporting breastfeeding

The recommendation statement by the USPSTF, accompanied by an in-depth statistical analysis, addresses whether anything hospitals and medical professionals do actually increases breastfeeding rates, and if so, what interventions are most helpful.  They conclude, “with moderate certainty,” that breastfeeding support has a “moderate net benefit.”

That’s not terribly surprising, but there are some really, really interesting specifics in the report, highlighted in a Journal of the American Medical Association editorial:

  • There is no evidence that the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) does any good.  If you’re unfamiliar with the BFHI, the idea is that hospitals can be certified if they implement a set of ten “baby-friendly” (read: breastfeeding-friendly) steps.  Some of these steps are controversial; for instance, if a new mother wants to formula-feed, the BFHI requires that hospital staff “educate her about the possible consequences to the health of her infant.”  Anyway, the USPSTF report determined that “individual-level interventions” (seeing a lactation consultant, attending a breastfeeding support group, etc.) were useful, while “system-level interventions” (the BFHI and other hospital policies) were not.
  • There is no benefit (in terms of breastfeeding duration) to completely avoiding formula during the newborn period.  Moms who supplement with formula before their milk comes in are just as successful at breastfeeding!  This is a big deal, because current breastfeeding advice tends to take an “any formula ever will ruin your breastfeeding relationship” approach.
  • Pacifiers are also OK!  Pacifier use is not associated with breastfeeding problems.  In fact, because pacifier use is associated with lower SIDS risk, the JAMA editorial goes so far as to say that

    routine counseling to avoid pacifiers may very well be ethically problematic.

Interestingly, when the USPSTF posted a draft of their recommendations back in April, there was apparently some concern about their choice to talk about the “support” of breastfeeding instead of the “promotion” of breastfeeding.  Because people are weird about this.