Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The belief that as psychology and psychiatry move more towards a medical model the more objective and “real” the fields will become concerns me. The new brain-based scientific paradigm currently booming in our psychiatric and mental health systems has radically altered how clinicians, doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and clients view what is healthy and what is pathological. This disease model of mental health and mental illness first entered into scientific discourse around the late 1800’s with the search for a “magic bullet” for internal diseases. Based on research by German scientist Paul Ehrlich, a new paradigm was introduced based on the belief that if invading organisms could be identified and killed, a disease could be cured. “If we picture an organism as infected by a certain species of bacterium, it will be easy to effect a cure if substances have been discovered which have a specific affinity for these bacteria and act on these alone. If they posses no affinity for the normal constituents of the body, such substances would then be magic bullets.”
In the world of mental health and psychiatry, this “magic bullet paradigm has manifested as the belief that “diseases” like Bipolar, Depression, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder among a few listed in the newest edition of the DSM IV (The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association and provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders), are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. These claims have not been scientifically proven. “There is not scientific evidence whatsoever that clinical depression is due to any kind of biological deficit state.” wrote Colin Ross, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Southwest Medical Center in his book, Pseudoscience in Biological Psychiatry (p.111). David Healy, a psychiatrist and author who has written many books on the history of psychiatry and is “one of the world's leading scholars on anti-depressants” has raised concerns about the use and safety of SSRI’s. After a lecture in which he raised concerns about evidence based research (funded primarily by pharmaceutical companies) the University of Toronto withdrew a formal job offer raising myriad concerns about the possible influence of large corporations on intellectual debate in universities.
According to Dr. Healy, “We are in an era, which is popularly portrayed as an "Evidence Based Medicine" era…Arguably, the term ‘Evidence Biased Medicine’ would be more appropriate. Clinical trials in psychiatry have never showed that anything worked…What clinical trials demonstrate are treatment effects. In some cases, these effects are minimal…One may have to strain with the eye of faith to detect the treatment effect…If our drugs really worked, we shouldn't have 3 times the number of patients detained now compared with before, 15 times the number of admissions and lengthier service bed stays for mood and other disorders that we have now. This isn't what happened in the case of a treatment that works, such as penicillin for GPI…Within the studies that are reported, data such as quality of life scale results on antidepressants have been almost uniformly suppressed. To call this science is misleading.”
A magic bullet that can zero in on its target like a heat seeking missile and eliminate a disease without much collateral damage is an amazing thing to contemplate. Were it to be true it would be a phenomenal scientific discovery. The reality, however, is much more complex. There is no scientific evidence that “diseases” like Bipolar Disorder, Major Depression or ADHD, are caused by an imbalance of serotonin or any other neurotransmitter. There have been discovers of correlation between depression and changes in serotonin and MRI imagery has allowed scientists to see links between attention, emotions, memory and specific areas of the brain. But correlation does not equal causation.
Science’s most recent partner, big pharmaceutical companies, further complicates my love-hate relationship. That most research is being funded and marketed by the same groups with a vested interest in not only discovering various diseases, but in a pharmacological cure, concerns me as well. Medication has become the “evidence based” magic bullet of the day and it is the front line response to recently discovered “diseases” to the point where doctors, psychiatrists, and clinicians can be told they are doing harm if they do not advocate and prescribe medications. At the same time, focus on social, political, economic, cultural and historical factors in regards to mental health and mental illness are being made inconsequential, unimportant or irrelevant. These factors are seen as minor players that may influence the color of some symptoms rather than potential root causes of symptoms. While I am not anti-medication—I know far too many people professionally and personally whose lives have been dramatically improved by medications of all kinds—my alarm stems from the overwhelming power of this new paradigm to eclipse other potential frameworks. In the early part of the past century there were debates as to the various potential causes and cures for a variety of “mental illnesses” and mental illness itself affected far fewer individuals. Currently there is little debate in the mainstream world of psychiatry, psychology and mental health about whether the new evidence based model should be the primary model and not much debate in the mainstream as to whether or not mood disorders are caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals. This scientific theory of an imbalance of brain chemistry is one theory. Just one theory. A theory, I might add that has not been proven through clinical trials. So why not support, research and expand on other theories? Why not include in mainstream discussions of causes and cures for mental illness how art and music have influenced the various ways people heal from trauma and abuse? Or how economic uncertainty and the disappearance of the American middle class impact an individual’s experience of anxiety or depression? Maybe more studies on how the radical changes in how food is manufactured and distributed in the last century has impacted our mental as well as physical health. Or why people diagnosed with schizophrenia living in less “developed” countries and who then are less likely to be put on anti-psychotics have a better prognosis than people living in the United States?
By isolating emotions and moods as malfunctions of the brain that can be traced to specific and objective symptoms and then treated with specific and evidenced based treatment protocols, the normative range of human responses to real life events has effectively been stripped of any cultural narrative, social value(s), personal beliefs, and historical context. The meanings of emotions has been managed, marketed, medicated and manipulated. If we have no meaning except a chemical imbalance in the brain, we are much more vulnerable to clinging to faith in “magic bullets”. For instance, depression is a reasonable response to uncertainly. Indeed, it was not that long ago that a depressed person was described as sensitive and empathetic. Now they have a brain disorder. A brain disorder that can be targeted and cured by evidenced based magic bullets called anti-depressants. The faith that science, rather than culture, can more accurately describe complex psychological phenomena and human experience is rooted in the belief that science, through “objectivity,” trumps culture and social context and that science in itself is not culturally produced or gains its significance and power from specific social and cultural contexts. All science is a product of culture. How one asks questions, which questions get asked, what gets researched, funded, promoted, who has access to medical school and research programs, how science is defined and viewed in the context of a society are all informed by culture. The current climate in the United States values science because it is viewed as separate from social, political and cultural paradigms. Science is viewed not a cultural and social product, but an objective field that produces objective data. This is dangerous. Science is rooted in culture, politics, economics and social values and these are not fixed objective things, but fluctuating and ever changing, which is why it is so critical to be able to debate and challenge treatment protocols as well as offer multiple and varying modalities of healing.
Healing is very deep and very personal work. There is no one right way to heal and no one right way to feel better. There is not even one objective state of “feeling better”. That said, I do want people to feel better but not at the expense of their health, well-being and certainly not by pathologizing a reasonable response to a complex, uncertain world. I want there to be options for healing and well-being that are rooted in a complex understanding of how culture, history, politics, genealogy, faith, personal experience, as well as biology and brain chemistry all inform our experience and understanding of complicated emotions like depression, anxiety, grief, joy and love. There are many people offering critical explorations of the evidence based research model of mental health, mental illness and magic bullet cures. And, I have read a few books recently that have prompted me to think deeply about how I hold space for people contemplating the role psychiatric medications may play in the trajectory of their healing. I am no longer certain that being neutral or “objective” with the intention of letting people decide on their own is enough. The brain chemistry model has been so naturalized in the present moment that medication has become “common-sense”.
There is a tremendous amount of social, political, economic and marketing power behind pharmaceutical companies and the evidence based treatment protocols founded on the research they promote. The sheer weight of this kind of power makes me wonder if the voices that challenge the notion that a brain-based disease model of mental health is the “best” model are loud enough to be heard in the mainstream. I am wondering where my own voice fits into this complex and ever evolving picture. And while I do not have any answers, I feel it is important to encourage anyone interested in exploring these issues to read the books listed below, talk with friends, family, counselors, doctors, and then critique and challenge what you read and hear. It is important that all voices are heard when we discussing and exploring the definitions, the causes and possible cures of mental illness. Science, evidence based research, and brain chemical imbalance theories have been doing a lot of talking lately (thank you for speaking up science!), but it’s time to sit back and let some other folks take the floor.
Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine by John Abramson
Anatomy of An Epidemic by Robert Whitaker
The Creation of Psychopharmacology by David Healy
Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters
Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease by Gary Greenberg
Monday, August 16, 2010
Building Bridges between Self-Care & Radical Social Change:
By linking boundary setting and cultural organizing, the workshop highlights the centrality of culture to radical social movements’ imaginations of liberation. It considers the profound impact art, music and culture have on how people and communities heal from violence, resist oppression, and work towards social justice.
About The Seattle Anarchist Book Fair:
The SAB is an organizing group that is strategically focusing on getting more folks from the Pacific Northwest into conversations to help grow and nurture our revolt; to encourage each other through critical analysis to reach a crucial potential.
"We hope that our workshops and panels will be packed with folks from our communities engaging in discourse about things directly affecting our lives, whether it be strategies or tactics for resistance for putting theory into practice, or how to celebrate our creative passions. We think it is important to be cultivating our own ideas and art, projects and relationships, so that we aren’t lulled into complacency by Anarchist “experts” who have answers for us."
Those of you in Seattle, I hope to see you there!
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
This approach has become culturally normative through a variety of social mechanisms including advertising, demand for “quick” and cheap cures and an increasingly medicalized framework for problem solving everything from the “problem” of aging or menopause, to the issue of children not being able to focus in classrooms. Consequently, wanting to address the cause of a disease can even be seen as being unsupportive of survivors, who laud the medications or medical procedures that have given them a second lease on life. Of course, getting a second chance at life, or being able to live for years after being diagnosed with cancer or HIV, or being able to take a medication that helps regulate serotonin in ways that improve your quality of life are no small things. Especially for those whose lives have been improved and extended. But our focus has shifted to the point where gratitude and positivism are seen as critical tools for survivors, necessary in fact, for their very survival. There is a preponderance of writing about the impact a positive attitude has on people’s recovery. The virtues of lemon-to-lemonade attitudes in patients has been praised by doctors, life coaches, therapists, psychologists and patients alike in everything from news stories and self-help articles to pseudoscientific books and websites. For a fabulous critique of the “science” of positivity check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Bright Sided. This, what I call “survivor culture” focus on a positivity and gratitude that ask people to concentrate their attention on how the disease or condition has improved their life, rather than any on negative effects they may be suffering from. People are told to bring their attention to what a disease or condition has given them and how they have learned to have a fulfilling life in spite of the diagnosis or condition. There is nothing wrong with being positive or practicing gratitude. I want to suggest, however, that the pressure to be positive leaves no room for anger, bitterness, rage, hopelessness and other seemingly “negative” emotions that are normal reactions to life changing and life threatening conditions, many of which could be avoided if there were the political and social will to do so. For example, anger and frustration are reasonable responses to the fact that big agriculture uses 70 % of the international water supply to grow monoculture crops in places where those crops are not meant to grow. This means those businesses need to use pesticide, which in turn pollutes the water, soil, and air. This pollution, in turn, causes enormous collateral damage. Now, consider the increasing numbers of birth defects found in children living near agricultural areas, or declining fertility rates throughout Europe primarily in areas with heavy pesticide use, or how Tasmanian cancer rates increased 200% after heavy use of pesticides. Our bodies are being biologically altered and no one can predict the future impact of these changes. Atrazine, as many people have been made aware through social protests (which have not change how it is being used here in the United Sates) has been linked to lower sperm counts in men in the United States, as well as prostate and ovarian cancer. Which means that if I get ovarian cancer, I may be extremely grateful for the cancer treatment protocols that have been developed and may save my life, but really angry and maybe even a little bitter, that Atrazine is still in widespread use in the United States despite being banned in Europe in 2003. Anger can be a reasonable response. Anger can also be a motivator and tool for social change. Anger at the continued use of Atrazine may prompt me to write letters to my congressperson, organize my community, or get involved in a group fighting to get Atrazine banned in the United States. It may also motivate me to investigate the larger intersections of economic repression, industrial racism and free market expansion in the name of political and social democracy.
Another example of our particular approach to problem solving is to argue that finding a cure is the same as finding the cause—if you can stop cancers from spreading, kill the bacteria that causes MERCA or change brain chemistry to address an emotional disorder, then you have addressed the issue. And there is some merit to this belief--you have addressed that one particular aspect of that particular problem. But that is not the whole picture. Or even the entire problem. When large companies choose to use pesticides that have been proven to cause cancer and the problem is addressed by an increase in cancer research (funded by paramedical companies) to find a cure for the cancer that is linked to that particular toxin, this is an egregious example of racing past the cause to get to a cure. This race continues as funding dollars are funneled into the research and development of medications to treat the side effects of the cancer medication. This toxic cycle may help individuals suffering from cancer live longer with fewer side effects (unless the medications they are prescribed for side effects have side effects) but does little to solve the dilemma of why they, along with many, many other individuals got the cancer in the first place.
When we move away from exploring the larger causes of a disease, or when, why and how a new diagnosis is introduced—examining the history, development and genealogy, if you will, of the disease and then addressing the disease from all these various and overlapping points—we risk perpetuating damage. If, for example one were to explore the root causes of cancer, one would discover that the majority of cancers are linked to environmental factors. It would make sense then to focus research, time, money and social investment in addressing these environmental root causes. To be sure many epidemiologists, scientists, doctors and community advocates are doing just this kind of work. But most major and mainstream research and social investment (time energy, volunteering, donations,) tend to focus on supporting survivors of cancer and helping to cure those with cancer with new medications and treatment protocols. This is fantastic. Survivors need support. But the focus is imbalanced. There are no pink ribbon campaigns for the causes of cancer. I have never seen a race to “beat the cause”. Perhaps a race to prevent asbestos exposure, or to fund the cost of moving families who live near nuclear dump sites but can’t afford to relocate, in order to prevent generational cancer clusters from appearing in the first place. Survivors should have races and campaigns. I am not suggesting that we stop these things. I am, however, proposing that we widen our lens and that funding and social support are expanded to include the identification and eradication of the primary causes of social ills. This approach, of course, asks one to examine systemic and institutional factors as well as individual factors. If environmental factors are one of the primary causes of cancer, then it would make sense to hold marathons, races, and pink ribbon campaigns to remove toxic substances from our foods, toys, and common household cleaning supplies. Maybe an orange ribbon campaign to stop the dumping of nuclear waste in economically disenfranchised neighborhoods and dumping in neighborhoods with predominantly residents of color living in them. It makes sense, so why doesn’t it happen?
When I worked for a small non-profit, occasionally a development consultant would donate their time to help our staff and board of directors learn how to develop campaign strategies, promote and market our “message”. What came up again and again, was that the more complex an issue was, the more we had to break it down into small manageable and digestible pieces—the 30 second message, the elevator speech, the two sentence mission statement. The more factors or intersectionalitites an organization was trying to address, the more complicated the issue, the more development consultants recommend a “focus on the solution.” Our group was reminded time and time again that donors (read: foundations) wanted to see “results”. We learned that you are expected to narrow down the problem to a single issue and then offer (and produce results with empirical evidence) a positive solution. This focus on results and positive solutions has its roots in the same “get ‘er done” frontier mentality model that pushes us to find the cure rather than get into the dirty, mucky realm of the causes. This approach narrows rather than widens the lens through which issues/problems/diseases/diagnosis are examined. This approach, focused primarily of “results” or “solutions”, informs the quality and kinds of questions that are asked, the quality and kinds of research that is funded and the kinds and quality of responses that are offered to social ills. This type of focus moves us away from exploring the complicated root causes of things primarily because most often the root causes are not neat, digestible, positive 2-sentence solutions. What’s more, having a focus on “solutions” also disregards or minimizes the importance of process. Process is important. How we get to a solution matters tremendously. Who is involved, who’s voices are heard, who’s view point is seen or listened too, how the solution is transcribed, documented, implemented, disseminated, shared (or not), distributed, communicated, how redress is handled, how conflict and disagreement are handled, all of this matters. The idea that the solution or result takes precedence over everything else is just one way of approaching problem solving. It happens to be the dominant model in the Untied States, not by participatory choice or majority consent, but by a history of dis-inclusion, oppression, marginalization and at times violent repression.
This approach, problem solving by focusing on and prioritizing a solution rather than exploring multiple and intersecting causes and valuing results more than process can do a lot of damage. The kinds of questions that arise when one is focused on a cure rather than exploring the complexity of possible causes can actually cause harm. When children are unable to focus in school, the primary question proposed by mainstream media, why are our children unable to focus? Is answered by 30-second, 2-sentence solution focused statements. This has produced a few different results, one of which is the over medication of school children who may be suffering less from a neurological disorder so much as from social and environmental changes. The predominant answer for the past decade to the question why can’t our children focus in school? has been medical rather than social in nature, looking at individual children, then diagnosing and prescribing a cure in the form of medication. And as for the side effects of the medications? More medication. This is an interesting route—this diagnostic paradigm. And it is one path for questions, investigations and solutions. There are, of course, other paths to take. There is not much mainstream and well-funded research being done, that I am aware, of that explores the intersections of an increasing student-teacher ratio, the decrease in physical activity—both in and out of school—an increase in sugary and corn syrup filled foods in many school diets and the increasing behavioral issues of inattention. Instead we race for the cure. We figure out what the problem is: inattention. We diagnosis it: ADHD. And we cure it: with medication. This approach has been helpful for some teachers and parents and children who struggle to sustain focus and attention in classrooms. And that is wonderful. Who would argue that helping a child who has trouble paying attention, is forgetful or even unmanageable is a bad thing? I certainly would not. But, when we do not balance this with a focus on the causes, and we use this as the primary and in many cases only approach, we are not dealing with the entire picture. And when we are not dealing with the entire picture, important details and facts get missed. When important details are missed, people and communities tend to suffer. There are huge testimonials and new bodies of research documenting the negative and often dangerous impact on children who are given stimulants, antidepressants and antipsychotic medication. Check out Overdosed America by John Abramson. It’s a great book by a medical doctor examining the impact big pharmaceutical companies are having on medical and mental health approaches to diseases and diagnosis.
I also want to point out that this shift in accountability and responsibility from cause to cure does not, ultimately, serve those grappling with these issues. Finding a cure for cancer or medication that can help children focus is a noble cause, but if social investment is pointed only in that direction, the harm will continue, profits from curing the diseases and diagnosis which result from the harm will continue, and those working to discover, manufacture, advertise and distribute a cure will continue to make money. Lots of money. So much money, I would argue that there could even be an impetus to create a disease in order to get money to research and manufacture a cure. Consider the new disorder of low female libido and the new cure, female Viagra. The possibility that women may have lower sex drives because, here in the United States, they are working longer hours, while still struggling to sustain families, under financially instable conditions, is not, as far as I am aware, on any research agenda. There are no large-scale research projects (that I have been able to find) on how work culture in the United States may affect sex drive in women. If there are, such studies they are not being shared with mainstream America in major news networks. No pharmaceutical company has invested research dollars to look at the potential link between economic depression and sex drive. They won’t because that will not produce a product for them to sell. No product, no profit. And they do have big profit margins to sustain, as pharmaceutical companies enjoy the highest profit margin of any industry. There are no mainstream research programs looking into the possible ways that chemicals and toxins like Atrazine, over use of medications like anti-biotics, and the long-term effects of psychopharmacology are impacting our biology. There are links between anti-depressants and lower sex drive and there is more and more data showing that medications as well as pesticides are showing up in our drinking water. In Texas, toxicologists found high levels of Prozac in tissues of every fish they sampled. No need for a Prozac prescription I suppose, but it makes you wonder what eating fish might be doing to the sex drives of women in the lone star state.
Consider another example. The associations between childhood sexual abuse and adult mental health issues like depression, addiction, anxiety, as well as personality disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder have long been established. Recently leaders in the field of trauma work attempted to introduce a new diagnosis, Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) into the newest publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM (the manual published by the American Psychiatric Association which covers all mental health disorders for both children and adults). DTD is a diagnosis that encompasses the complex reality and varied symptomatic expression of traumatic experience. Despite over a decade of well-documented research, the inclusion of DTD was denied. The justification for the denial was that since the symptoms captured by DTD were already included in the DSM under other diagnostic categories, for example, anxiety, depression, hypersomnia, nightmares, panic attacks, substance abuse, addiction, self-harm, and mood swings there was no need for a new diagnosis. What is missing in this argument is that the approach of treating individual symptoms using individual diagnosis with different treatment protocols does nothing to hold space for the complex reality of trauma. Consider an interview with four leaders in the treatment of child trauma.
“Approaching each of these problems piecemeal, rather than as expressions of a vast system of internal disorganization, runs the risk of losing sight of the forest in favor of one tree,” said Bessel van der Kolk.“ What you call someone has large implications for how you treat someone, even though you may be describing the same phenomenology [using different terms].”
He (van der Kolk) noted, for instance, that because of the emotional dysregulation that traumatized children frequently display—as well as self-harming behaviors they may adopt as a coping mechanism—they are too often diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated exclusively with drugs and behavior management
If children are diagnosed with ADHD without considering social and contextual possibilities for their behaviors we risk doing harm. If children are diagnosis with bipolar disorder because they become dysregulated as a result of trauma, we risk re-traumatizing them. And in both cases we do not get to the cause of their behaviors nor the root of the issue. Three separate diagnoses do not add up to a complete picture or whole experience as the current approach in mental health would have families, patients, mental health advocates and clinicians alike believe. Got depression, anxiety and restless leg syndrome? You will get three different medications rather than addressing the root and entire constellation which might reflect a disregulated biological system impacted by long-term fight, flight or freeze response to traumatic experiences. This type of individual focused and cure oriented treatment based approach leads to more diagnosis, more medication and more profits for pharmaceutical companies, and not necessarily a more complex understanding of people’s experiences. I do not want to disparage diagnostic tools, or new diagnosis. The world of mental health and the ability to accurately diagnosis and provide medications for people suffering has been radically helpful for many, many people. But many people working in mental health, doctors and counselors alike seem to have bought into the false belief that psychology and psychiatry are objective because they are utilizing a scientific and medical framework. Both psychology and psychiatry utilize science and scientific research to be sure, but to argue and act as if they are objective is to justify racing for a cure and treatment while blatantly ignoring or minimizing complex root causes.
If it seems easier to focus on a cure, this is because it often is. Root causes are often tangled, messy places where intersections of multiple factors complicate and impact each other. We are complex creatures, we humans. And we have to resist the lure of quick fixes, easy answers and cures that offer us a way out of having to think about the mucky reality behind, under and woven inside an issue/problem/disease. And we must actively choose to do this again and again, because the pull to focus on a quick 30-second sound bite and “results” is strong, especially when the causes are complicated and the sound bites sexy. But the 30-second sound bite and quick cure does all of us harm in the long run. None of us benefit in the long term from racing
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Yo—hey there Mr. Corporate CEO, Mr. Wal-Mart Exec, Mr. Exxon Mobil, Mr. Chevron, Mr. General Motors, Mr. GE, Citigroup and WA MU (or is it CHASE now? My bad.). Let’s be clear. I know you don’t like me. And I know I’m not particularly special in this regard. I know you don’t like me or any other rabble rousing, fist waving, protest supporting, community organizing, free thinking lover of imagination, alternative medicine and alternative realities, non-prescription drug taking, non-monogamy relationship participant, slow food movement lover, chicken raising bee keeping, spoken word artist.
I know it would be a lot easier for me to simply jump off the ledge or go crazy or simply get diagnosed with bi-polar disorder or major depression. I get it. Your monopoly, you mortgage, your marriage and you manhood depend on people like me not making too much of a stink about things. And when we do, people like me can easily get labeled Angry. Disgruntled. Pissed off. Unsettled. Unstable. Unhealthy. And we can get diagnosed, arrested or otherwise disposed of.
But here is my dilemma, Mr. CEO Guy…I want to jump off the ledge. I want to free-fall for a moment of eternal bliss followed by a quick slam-dunk into a permanent black out. I want to jump, Mr. CEO because of the hopelessness you manufacture. I want to be free and I am not. So I go crazy. Just a little. I want to be ok but life is not ok. So I drink. A little more than I should sometimes. Pain is abundant and so are money, land, water, housing, food and other resources and yet we starve and suffer. Children die because their mother’s and fathers can’t afford $80 medications. Doesn’t that make you want to shoot, punch, kick, or kill somebody? And if the somebody is an amorphous, asexual, ambiguous corporation that doesn’t have kneecaps to break and wraps itself in a national flag and a pink ribbon campaign designed to distract like shinny things in a store window, it makes sense to feel helpless because you don’t know where to land your fist. And the next little boy is dying because he can’t get medical attention and another mother gets cancer from prescription drugs, another man looses two fingers to a greedy assembly line, and another infant is born into poverty so you can maintain your swimming pools and tennis courts. And if you don’t know where to slam your fist it can make a wide arch back into the side of your own head. It makes sense, then to want to kill yourself because you can’t shoot a corporation, Mr. CEO Guy. And we do kill ourselves. Suicide is on the rise in many communities, the actual numbers hidden inside reports of overdoses, lethal accidents, and medial mysteries. And when suicide seems too complicated or messy, we can numb out and you will be there making soothing noises as you hand out pie charts showing the unexplainable rise in depression, autism and MS, the inexplicable cancer clusters, the confounding new chemicals like Premarin, Tirmox, Zoloft, Prilosec Lipitor and Loanoxin found in our drinking water (which are all on the top ten prescribed drugs in America list—but that’s another piece), the baffling disappearance of the middle class and perplexing expansion of the working poor.
Mental health is not compliance. Mental health, in a system of subjugation, denigration violence and abuse, is resistance. Mental health by any means necessary and that for me means looking over the edge of the precipice we stand on, and saying Mr. CEO man, fuck you.
You take the hit this time and If I go down I want to be holding you like a make shift wrap ‘n wear baby wrap. Motherfucker, I want to sew my legs around your thick martini midday waist and take you with me in a chokehold designed for stranger attacks by a bunch of rich white men afraid of strangers. (Men, who, it could be argued are afraid of their own worst shadow selves, but that’s another piece as well.) In any event we focus on stranger attacks, on muggings and rapists in part because they are messed up and we need to be able to defend ourselves, but also because you Mr. CEO man are too ambiguous, amorphous, unidentifiable to design a self defense curriculum around. What’s your target point? How do I de-escalate a verbal encounter with a corporation? But I know your face Mr. Walton, Mr. Rex Tillerson, MR. John S. Watson, Ed Whitacre, Mr. Vikram Pandit and Don Blackenship. I can simultaneously hold any and all of you close to me in a vice grip, whisper sweet incriminations of the families you have destroyed, babies you have murdered while holding your freshly scrubbed and exfoliated cheek to mine in a mortal combat caress. I can free fall with you any day of the week. I can sustain whatever diagnosis or dilemma you describe to corporate media. I am willing to be labeled to get close enough to put you in a sleeper chokehold and plunge head first over the balcony of your sins. I can jump. But I want to do it with you, my mortal Mr. CEO man. I itch to wrap you in my sultry embrace, wrap my fingers around the back of your neck and with a smile and a quick snap yank you close inside my very personal space and then with a surprising delightful “let’s roll CEO Man. Let’s roll.” Take. You. Down. I want to rock your world, MR CEO man. And instead of sushi and sexy time romp in my panties, we’ll roll 30 stories to the pavement that is made of gravel and guts from your victims. To a sidewalk full of blood and seamen; sweat and salty tears; unsung heroes and untold stories. Asphalt that has absorbed so much in-humanity and a blacktop that will absorb your sins and my teeth and bones which bounce off that hard surface then land with a satisfying splat embracing your sins and my sin of embracing you to be here, with you, 30 stories below in a bloody tangled mess of skin and muscle and bone.
And while I know taking you out won’t stop your brothers, your brethren from continuing to breathe in financial number crunching and exhale the cells of corporate lust for constant expansion, Mr. CEO man I’m willing to be a symbol of reckless abandon. I am willing to be arrested in time like Massey Forman are arrested for hazardous working conditions while you and your buddies, Mr. CEO take a ski vacation in Switzerland or surfing lessons in Maui. I am ready. I have been ready for a long time now. I can sleep eternal at peace knowing that my 15 minutes may be forgotten by the next news deadline by those who choose to ignore reality, but that my choice to take you down will be remembered as both a gesture of resistance and a powerful psychological reminder to people everywhere that while you may run the world, my friend, you do not own it.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Puget Sound Off Interviews Cristien Storm & Kate Boyd From "If You Don't They WIll" On Clutural Organizing
In an article on Community Arts Network’s Reading Room webpage, Caron Atlas describes cultural organizing as “a means of placing culture at the center of an organizing strategy. It can be done to unite people through the humanity of culture and the democracy of participation. It can also be used to divide people though fear and polarization.”
Cultural organizing works because it situates organizing and social change in the environment of the moment. I want to share some examples from when I was working at Home Alive, a Seattle based anti-violence non-profit organization that offers affordable self-defense classes and provides public education and awareness. Because we were artists, musicians, performers as well as activists, art and music was an integral part of how we did our work. We organized benefit shows that created community dialogue about “How are you getting home tonight?” Which led to discussion around “Are you safe once you get home?” Out of these discussions (which took place in club bathrooms, the backs of taxi’s, on a barstool), rose organic responses that reflected the diversity of people and communities that were talking about things they may have never talked about before. Bartenders began organizing patrons by collecting cab fare for women who didn’t have a ride home; club bouncers called Home Alive to ask us to do a training on what to do with situations of domestic violence in front of clubs; artists approached Home Alive and clubs to post community resources in clubs and do art installations about issues of sexual assault and date rape in bathrooms after a woman was raped in a bathroom stall during a music show. Musicians asked us to table at their shows and during their sets asked fans to make sure to help each other get home alive.
In other words, Home Alive didn’t organize our community, we supported our community organizing. People made zines, organized speak outs with Home Alive’s support. Because community members were responding in ways that reflected them rather that a specific organizational agenda, there were conflicts of interest, conflicts of opinion, differing views, and even arguments and disputes over how to respond to violence. Our response was that there wasn’t one right way to respond and it wasn’t Home Alive’s job to tell people how to respond, but to support people responding to violence in order to create community dialogues that might help create communities and environments where we could not only respond to violence when it did occur, but where violence was less likely to happen. Because people were creating dialogues in their own language all kinds of conversations were happening and they were happening in places and in ways that activist don’t often think of as “organizing.” Beer drinking working class guys hanging out at Happy Hour were talking about domestic violence and how they heard (through music events) that on super bowl Sunday domestic violence increases. They started talking about how messed up that was and how they might respond if anyone they know says or does anything abusive. They didn’t talk about violence against women in feminist lingo. They would have scoffed if you called them activists and trying to get them to attend a rally or community meeting would be an exercise in futility. But they were talking about domestic violence. They were creating ways of responding to violence against women. They were taking it seriously and addressing it in their environments, in this case during happy hour and at super bowl parties. They were changing the culture of that landscape. This small and simple example of a community of men responding to domestic violence in their own language is a direct result of the cultural organizing done by Home Alive as well as a great example of culture organizing, although that particular group of men would never call it that.
Cultural organizing does not try to create one particular response, it’s about creating movement within a cultural context that impacts people and community in ways that shift the landscape in irreversible ways. PSO can engage in cultural organizing by supporting communities who are having dialogues about participation in democracies in all kinds of ways, whether it’s through a music show, arts campaign, spoken word show, button making parties, chalking art, dance-a-thons’s, whatever. The thing about cultural organizing is that it resists organizational control. Home Alive wasn’t successful at cultural organizing because we set out to do it; we were successful because it was how our communities expressed themselves. Home Alive supported people who wanted to respond to violence in their lives, envision liberation, raise money, heal from an incident or be engaged in community dialogues with money, time, resources, backing, belief and commitment. When a 13 year old girl walked into the office and said her friend was assaulted and she wanted to do a zine project, we supported her by helping her get the resources to do the project without micromanaging, even if Home Alive staff disagreed with some of the content or messages of the zine. We valued her project as much as when a famous band member called to say he believes in our cause and wants to throw a benefit show, again, even if some Home alive staff thought some of the band’s songs were sexist. It’s not about creating a consistent controlled message, it’s about supporting community.
What are the ways that organizations like PSO can support youth organizing?
It’s great when organizations ask about supporting youth organizing. A place to start is at our tips and tricks:
Tips and Tricks
For transitioning from organizing youth to youth organizing
• Have a power analysis that includes age
• Commit to prioritizing building multiple age bridges
• Have your adult staff and board attend a youth organizing 101 training
• Incorporate the information from youth organizing trainings into strategic planning
• Learn how to be an ally as individuals, as staff, as an organization and as part of a larger social movement
• Support other organizations that are youth run, youth led and have demonstrated a commitment to youth organizing
• Let go of power. Prepare to step down and relinquish control
• Envision youth as leaders
• Be excited about letting youth lead and letting go of control—it benefits all of us!
• Be prepared as an ally to advocate for youth organizing to funders
How does this compare with the activity of organizing youth?
Supporting youth organizing versus organizing youth takes a paradigm shift. The scenarios in our first post can help organizations think about how they might be colluding in organizing youth rather than supporting youth organizing. It’s important to first understand the difference and then make the commitment to support youth organizing. It’s not something you can do part way. If you aren’t sure you or your organization can do it, don’t say you are going to. Don’t represent your organization or project as youth led if it isn’t led by youth. A huge part of it is letting go of control, power and resources. If you are trying to support youth organizing but hold all the purse strings, it undermines youth power. Challenge yourself as individuals and as groups or organizations to examine what fears, feelings, or frustrations come up when you think about letting youth control their own project. Be honest and transparent. If you don’t think your organization is ready but you believe in supporting youth organizing, then give time, money, and/or resources to groups that are doing it. Ally ship is a huge part of this work and there are many different ways to be an ally.
As an activist and someone dedicated to working towards social change, I came to yoga as a stressed out cultural organizer and anti-violence program director. I have always been physically active as well being as involved in political organizing. For over ten years I developed self-defense curricula that had roots in traditional marital arts and progressive liberation theory. It was important for me to integrate a critical social justice framework into the various parts of my life. I brought it into how I developed and facilitated self-defense classes. It informed how I negotiated boundaries with friends, family, and co-workers. So, it made sense to me that I would think about how anti-oppression and yoga intersect, how they support each other, and even where they might oppose each other.
I have practiced yoga on and off for over twenty years and have been a more serious and dedicated yogini for the past eight years with a daily yoga and meditation practice. As an anti-violence organizer and counselor working with survivors of trauma and abuse, I have a rich history of exploring healing modalities and believe in the transformative practice of mindfulness that is at the root of both yoga and meditation. We become more powerful agents of change and more connected to each other when we learn to be in our bodies, learn to listen, to stay grounded in the midst of chaos, to not be swept away by quickly changing waves of emotion. Being mindful, non-judgmental, present, compassionate, and intentional with our words and actions can help us in all areas of our life.
The ideals, philosophies, principles, and practices of yoga and meditation can transform individuals, communities and institutions. These same qualities can help us engage in movement building while being a powerful force for social change. Social change and liberation is not, however, what is happening in most yoga classes. When I ask people how their yoga practice and/or meditation practice helps them create social change, interrupt racism and oppression, or dismantle systemic and institutional oppression, I am often met with a blank stare or a pat response along the lines of, Yoga helps me as an individual, which is part of changing the world.” Or, “My time on the mat is about me and my body.
This is not a bad or incorrect response. It’s fantastic that yoga helps people stay committed to human rights and social change work. Our ability to stay committed matters tremendously when burnout and secondary trauma drain our most dedicated folks. But this simple answer strikes me to what is really a more complex exploration of how we can connect the qualities, principles, and ideals of yoga and meditation practice to social change.
In most yoga studios there is not an intentional or articulated link made between what individuals or yoga communities are studying and practicing and social justice. Individual students, teachers, and studios may do this work on their own, and indeed some are with brilliant skill and success, but as a community of practitioners, we are not having this dialogue. In response to my question of how we connect yoga to social change, a fellow yogi suggested that oppression was simply ideology and that enlightenment allows you to see through or beyond oppression—ergo seeking enlightenment by practicing yoga and meditation is in and of itself moving beyond oppression. This perspective ignores the historical, cultural, and institutional legacy of oppression and supposes that we can somehow disengage from it (once we are enlightened enough to see it). The fact that I can see institutional racism or homophobia occurring in my workplace, family gatherings, or daily life means little if I am not equipped to interrupt and challenge it.
Yoga is still an exclusive practice, accessible to mostly white middle class people. Even when I go into Chicago to my teacher's studio to take his classes, a studio that is in a hip, diverse area, the majority of students are white. This lack of cultural diversity is one of the pressing issues of North American yoga, says Tawanna Kane, Because if the yoga community fails to reach out to people of color, or the poor, or the physically challenged, yoga could become simply another expensive pastime of the privileged. Yoga Journal's 2003 study discovered that at least 15 million people practice yoga in the US with over 30% of them earning an annual household income of $75 000 or more, and 15% making over $100,000. The same research found that nearly 50% of people doing yoga have completed a college education and an additional 40% have some college education or hold an associate degree.
In a place where people are seeking liberation and enlightenment, it’s important to include critical conversations around access, power, privilege, and oppression. There can be a “love sees no color” mindset in many yoga communities. This mindset is rooted in an ideal of equality and multiculturalism that may actually uphold racism and white supremacy by ignoring its systemic and historical nature. If we celebrate difference without understanding the role power plays, we inadvertently risk supporting systems of oppression. A work place can celebrate the diversity of their community while not addressing how institutional racism or sexism play out in who gets hired, fired, promoted, or salary and compensation decisions, for example. We are not all equally different in our relationship to systems of oppression.
I do not mean to speak poorly of yogi’s and yogini’s. There are some amazing, diverse, and culturally competent yoga studios linking social change, justice and personal asana practice. I am one of the many white yoginis after all and most of us do yoga to become better people. We appreciate how yoga helps up participate in our relationships with more humanity, respect and dignity. There is a true and deep desire to “do good” in most yoga practices. But unchecked, a white person’s idea of “doing good” can actually involve doing harm. Privilege may allow you to be unaware of things that other people see very clearly. Privilege allows us access to things we don’t even think about in terms of access. As a white woman, I can choose to be surrounded mostly if not entirely, by white people for example. I don’t have to worry about being the only white person in a work or personal situation unless I choose to. If I do end up being the only white person at a work place, social event, or yoga class and I feel uncomfortable, I can be sure to find understanding and support. An informative article on understanding white privilege is Peggy’s Macintosh’s, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There are other ways privilege plays out in our daily lives. I can choose to prioritize yoga. I can choose to buy organic foods. I can choose to leave work at home and say yes the personal is political but right now I get “time off.” These are privileges not everyone has access to.
Saying that we don’t have to (or shouldn’t) bring social justice, social change, or anti-oppression into our ninety minutes on our mat is something not every one has the luxury of doing. While an hour and a half to get away from your regular life and focus on your body, your breath, develop non-attachment and cultivate qualities of compassion, dedication, patience, and peace is an amazing thing, let’s be real—it’s a privilege. Not just because it’s often expensive, located in parts of town that are not accessible to certain community members, but also because there exists an unspoken acquiescence to suspend any notion of having to do social change/social justice work while we practice yoga. This means we are asking people who are targets of oppression (of all kinds) to enter a space we have designated as an anti-oppression free zone and feel safe enough to let go, breath and be vulnerable. That we ask them to do this not by addressing oppression specifically, but by suspending discussion of it silences people and ignores the reality of their experience.
What do we do? How do you interrupt racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, or any other oppression in the context of a yoga class? How do you bring it in the room and on the mat with you? How do you do this while not chasing your monkey mind? There isn’t one right way, but it starts with acknowledging that we can’t separate our yoga practice from our activism. It also involves challenging the notion that simply doing yoga, seeking enlightenment, or meditating is enough to create social change. Here are some ideas. These are a place to start, not a floor plan to how to do it right—just like yoga, it’s a process and the process is just as important as the goal.
Start a discussion group
Meet once a week, once a month to talk about these things. You can bring questions of your own, or develop questions from articles and anti-oppression trainings.
Some questions you can start with include:
1. Why is it important to make links between yoga, meditation, oppression and privilege? What do I gain if we do this work? What do I lose if we do not do this work?
2. Why do I think these discussions are not happening at yoga studios on a regular basis? What can I do to change that?
3. How can each of the eight limbs of yoga contribute to undoing oppression?
4. What are three things I can commit to doing as a yoga practitioner that will support social change?
5. How can this discussion group support social change?
Read anti-oppression and Buddhism/yoga articles together and discuss how they connect, contradict, or support each other.
Ask your yoga studio/instructors to support community as part of their yoga practice and philosophy. Many yoga classes and teacher trainings are inaccessible for people. Things like childcare, location, scheduling for single parents and those who do not live near by, language, access for those with different physical abilities, are just a few examples. Doing trades or barter for fees is a great idea but unless in takes into account that the working poor often have both less time and money, it does little to make things more accessible. Look into supporting yoga classes in places that already serve communities that don’t have access to your studio. Think about sliding scale teacher trainings, or scholarships, or donating an instructor training slot. Support local leadership and local community healing that are already going on.
Don’t bring yoga to at-risk youth without doing your homework (and don’t use the term “at risk” youth—it’s deficit language that locates the problem within the individual rather than with social political, and economic systems). Setting up a yoga class for “at risk” youth of color may seem like a great way to do good work, but white people risk reinforcing a culture of white privilege/white supremacy, even while sharing vales of love and respect. If we try to “help” people let go of anger that is truly righteous, for example, without understanding the depth of it, without realizing the pain it holds, and the history it speaks, we risk punishing people for their truth—which our privilege blinds us to, which is hardly a Buddhist moment.
Don’t do this work alone. Take responsibility to educate yourself but don’t expect others who are targets of oppression to educate you. Rather than ask them to help you, ask them what you can do to support them. If you can do it, do it!
Have fun! This is challenging work. If we take it (and ourselves) too seriously, we will undoubtedly burn out. Being committed to undoing oppression doesn’t mean you can’t seek contentment. It means your contentment is in part connected to undoing oppression!
We can’t refuse or give up our privilege. We can, however, choose how we are who we are. We can choose to be honest, transparent, accountable, and committed to dismantling oppression. Yoga and meditation are amazing tools to do this work. They bring us into our bodies. They help us deepen our understanding of the world around us, ourselves, and our relationships. They challenge us to be more open, accepting, caring, vulnerable, and giving. They are invaluable as a healing modality. Both yoga and meditation allow us to cultivate an inner compassionate witness. Being able to be a compassionate witness with the tools and means to act according to values around human rights and social justice are at the root of anti-oppression work. Yoga and meditation can enrich our work, our lives, our relationships, and our selves. It is up to us where and how we want to grow. I hope we choose to grow towards a liberation that includes an understanding of power and privilege and moves us towards social change that includes each and every one of us.
 The color of yoga, Linda’s Yoga Journal, August 2007
 Personal, Political, Everyday Yoga, by Lesley Marian Neilson. Ascent Magazine , Fall 2004
 Diversity in yoga: what do studies say? By Juniper Glass, Ascent Magazine , Fall 2004
 The term “at risk” can be undermining and offensive. It is not people who are “at risk”, but institutions, and systems that create environments that perpetuate modes of surviving that from the outside get labeled ‘at risk”.
To deal effectively with something difficult
Basic survival in this world requires super heroes with coping super powers
Super power symptoms of survival include: self-medicating, self mocking, self love, self sustaining, sustaining a self
No small thing in a world that obliterates the self, disconnecting, redefining re-labeling, repackaging multiple selves in order to sell
Diagnosing with little regard for complicated social context and legacies of dis-inclusion
It’s pathological to express homicidal thoughts and yet we celebrate cutthroat CEO’s who takes people out in order to get to “the top”
There are degrees and diplomas in cutthroat CEO-man ship
There are reality shows lauding these kinds of selves
Creating glass ceilings sharp enough to cut a soul in half just for dreaming of moving beyond its shinny surface
It’s symptomatic to talk to yourself, but whom do you talk to when no one is listening?
If a woman screams and no one hears her, does it still make a sound?
When you are marginalized and disenfranchised listening to yourself becomes a radical super power…
Our super heroes are everywhere…hidden in corners, camouflaged in plain sight, perched precariously on the ledge, drably draped in defenses deflecting their wicked-swift super power-ness, held captive in imaginations dulled by prime time and too much prime rib, stuck in the childhood of collective unconscious, frozen like kids paying freeze tag…waiting, breath held tightly in the deep bottom pockets of both lungs, for us to notice them, to look up or down or left or right and see them: the 7 year old girl with the sassy smirk and black sharpie marks on her fingernails; the adolescent boy next door who’s always picking up pieces of string; the teenage gangster with the soft sideways stare; the housewife hiding behind her bottle of pinot noir; the garbage man who nods back even though he wasn’t acknowledged in the fist place; the waiter and waitresses who plunk down food and coffee, cocktails and unconditional sustenance day after day to an endless parade of mostly ungrateful and half conscious people; the toll booth operator who knocks you on your ass when she smiles and hands back your change with three inch long bright blue nails with yellow and white daisies on them; the overweight girl who hides in the back of the classroom behind a curtain of black hair doodling pictures of Dalmatians wearing sunglasses; the bus driver who breaks up fights at midnight on her number 10 bus route with a sigh as long as winter…
These are our super heroes who whisper stories of hope into the silent shadow of our deepest self waiting desperately to be heard, to be allowed to speak a truth that has been digitally manipulated beyond recognition like the thighs of super models or the skin tone of our local news anchor
They whisper blustery, mischievous and marvelous stories of courageous, tenacious, and audacious humanity
The grace of a three-year-old dealing effectively with fingers being where they should not be by splitting off from his body and developing another person inside his person who takes care of him
The grace of a gay man being beaten by his lover, who finally punches back and dares to challenge the question, “Doesn’t that mean it’s not really domestic violence because you’re two guys and you took a swing at him too?”
The grace in the ability to fold into ourselves to expand beyond measure inside our skin so we can hide quietly for days in a closet in order to not be found.
The grace of a fist raised in the air in silent opposition to subjugation with so long a history that some have absorbed the myth that oppression is normal, like the air we breathe. But the fist remains an unsettling beacon reminding us that there is, in fact, a different way to be
This coping is phenomenal.
A remarkable silent witness to the versatile, creative and captivating epitomes of survival and resistance.
When a wolf gnaws her own paw off when it’s caught in a steal trap, this is brilliant snarled gnashing coping.
When a little girl, whose pain remains unnamed, ignored and dismissed feels that pain begin to swell inside her like a rising wave, and so she lashes out kicking and cutting, banging and punching hoping someone will hurt her enough to make the pain stop…this is coping.
When a woman is told to be quiet so many times that she learns to hold language inside her like a cyst, letting it feed on silence so she doesn’t forget how to speak, this is tragic and brilliant coping.
And all of us, each and every superhero struggling to gain purchase inside our collective souls has some bad-ass coping to do…we have to tangle with toxic air and toxic baby toys; a food chain poisoned by greed and psychological chains disguised as pharmaceuticals; prisons inside institutions and businesses inside prisons; we, all of us, need to remain compassionate while holding ourselves accountable for every last micro moment of abuse and hate
These superheroes inside us, who are holding their breath are ready to exhale and they are as recondite as the methods of our survival and healing and they love the complicated messy humanness of our coping. They, like all of us can, have learned to love the brilliant tangled mystery in a web of humanity, that while suffering tremendously still dares to dream big and bold and brilliantly of a coping that takes us beyond survival, beyond managing and management towards a vision of liberation where coping is not a superhero but a pedestrian rite of passage into a world that is capable of loving all of us. Equally.