Saturday, May 14, 2016

Full Professor

Well, it is official! I have just been promoted to full Professor at Southern Connecticut State University. This is the pinnacle achievement of my career as an academic. It is beyond exciting. But as I tend to do, I'm feeling quite existential and nostalgic. As I receive congratulatory messages, which I adore and appreciate, I keep reflecting back at all that brought me to this place. Yes, I worked hard, but there is no way that I would be here without a number of people, guardian angels/spirits, and pure luck that allowed me to reach this major career milestone. I wrote this blog in a totally unfiltered, authentic way to tell my true experiences. Those close to me know this full story; but many do not. In some ways, this is a full "coming out" that I am sharing about my career journey: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Letter! It's official, ya'll!
I graduated high school when I was 14 from a home-based accelerated correspondence high school program. I don't consider it a you-were-a-genius kind of program, but rather a stuck-at-home, dear-god-I-am-so-bored, so let-me-finish-up each subject within days of the curriculum's arrival to my house. I finished high school in a year and a half. This experience taught me that I could achieve if I put my mind to something; it also taught me that I could find all the answers I needed by reading the background material, practicing, and believing in myself. I worked hard for my own learning. I will forever be thankful to my mother who believed I could do better with schooling from home.

My graduation photo. And Yes, I was only 14.
I always looked much older.
What a nightmare for my parents.
After graduation, I had to wait until I was 16 to go to college or I could bring a parent with me to classes; since parent-in-tow was not exactly a cool college accessory, I decided to wait until I was 16. My parents gave me enough money to pursue any correspondence learning certifications I wanted while I waited. When I asked my father what I should do, he said, "Anything with computers, honey. That's where the world is going." Wise sage that he was! I spent the next year and half gaining two certificates: computer-assisted accounting (I am a pro at taxes and can make a spreadsheet like nobody's business) and a certified fitness instructor (kind of let that one slide a bit...). I also ran a day care center for several local children in order to save up enough money for a car: my beat-up beautiful 1984 Plymouth Horizon that cost me $600.

Me, Age 16. Oh God, the perm. Should have loved my straight hair...
While I was waiting to go to college, I remember talking to two people about what I should do for a degree; my friend Holly told me the famous Confucius proverb "Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life." I thought a lot about what I was good at and enjoyed - it was really learning about people, talking to them, and helping them to find peace and their way on their path. My brother Steve told me about his love for psychology and directed me to information about it as a profession. When I turned 16, I got my license, got a job to support myself, and registered for our local community college. I will never forget when my dad, who always had issues with reading since he dropped out of school at such a young age to support his family, brought me to school to help me fill out the financial aid forms, attend orientation, and encourage me to go to college. It must have been very uncomfortable for him in that he did not know how to fill out these forms; and a college atmosphere was probably pretty foreign-feeling. I will be forever be grateful to my father for supporting me to start this path and always doing whatever he could to support me while I was doing my best to survive college and working full-time.
My dad always supporting me!
I loved college and learning. I loved the people there. But I was still struggling with my own demons: I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of being molested as a child and growing up two-spirited (bisexual) in a very small town didn't help my feelings of normalcy. When I started dating, the impulse to run away from my problems intensified. After a year, I moved away and got married to the first guy that I had dated. Not a bright move, and before the year was over, I understood that clearly. My brother Steve was kind enough to take me in while I went through the divorce, got back on my feet, help me get a new job in the field of developmental disabilities, get back to another community college to finish my Associates' degree, and seek counseling for the PTSD and depression I had at that time. As stupid as I felt for my brief first marriage, having been married made me an "independent" student so I did not have to consider my parents' income and was eligible for more financial aid. Yay for stupid decisions! I worked as hard as I could at work, college, and on my own mental health. I learned Yoga at Corning Community College, which would be with me as a coping strategy continued through today. I began to embrace my differences, including being two-spirited (although I went through a long journey there as well!) and made some lifelong friends (Leah! Davette!) who supported me. I graduated with my Associates' degree at 19 and transitioned out of counseling happy and healthy.  I will forever be thankful to Steve for supporting me and helping me to find my happiness again. I became the first in my family to earn a college degree, and I was hungry for more.
Steve and me holding a Pocahontas doll; she needed love too.
We took weirder pictures, believe me.
Over the next few years, I worked in supervisory and administrative roles in a developmental services agency, went to SUNY Cortland for college, learned a tremendous amount in the fields of psychology and genetics, and continued to find myself and my career goals. I had some great mentors here and was even given a teaching opportunity in an undergraduate teaching assistantship. I also met Alina here, an amazing lifelong friend and person, who became my roommate and cheerleader. I had an amazing supervisor at work (Lori Gallerani), outstanding professors, great friends, and such a positive support system through this time. There were so many professors who meant so much to me, but one in particular, Dr. Judith Ouelette, will always stand out to me. She was a funny, passionate, intelligent professor who made experimental psychology not intimidating, but easy to learn. She also was authentic and an advocate for LGBT rights. She impacted me in so many ways. I would hang out in the Psychology Department, helping new students, advising, and learning about academia in the field of psychology. It took me a few more years, but I graduated at 21 with my Bachelors' degree in psychology with a concentration in psychology of exceptional children. I will forever be thankful to Dr. Ouelette and the other amazing people at SUNY Cortland for sparking my love for academia.

My 21-year old self & Dr. Ouellette
I did it!
Unfortunately, I did not have any information on how to apply to doctorate programs; I made many errors. I did not know how to write admission essays, I did not know to look for a specific mentor to match to, I really had no idea what I was doing. Even though I graduated Summa Cum Laude and had a ton of awards, as well as research experience, I did not get into either doctoral program to which I applied. After my second rejection letter, I sat at my kitchen table and cried. I knew I wanted to be a psychologist. But, I had to go to a doctoral program for that. I was also afraid for my student loan repayment to kick in if I didn't go back to school. I moped for a few hours, then jumped online to see which Masters programs in New York were still accepting applications. I ended up applying and being accepted into SUNY New Paltz for my Masters Degree in Psychology. That move was actually one of the most luckiest moves in my career. Not only did I attend an amazing program and meet incredibly interesting fellow students, I met a profoundly impactful mentor, who directly influenced my life and career. I learned a lot about counseling, about myself, and about what I could be capable of achieving. I also made another lifelong friend, Jess, who I will probably be with in my twilight years, rooming in a nursing home together. We share a soul energy that everyone picks up on, asking us if we are sisters or twins, although we legitimately look nothing alike. I loved SUNY New Paltz, the region, the students and faculty; that first year in New Paltz will always register as one of the  most happiest times of my life.
Look at how rested I was before non-furry kids!
When it came to applying for doctoral programs, I had spent hundreds of hours learning about the process, what the tricks and secrets were, and what I needed to focus on in my essays and Curriculum Vitae (academic resume). Unfortunately, around this same time, I also got sick with a life-threatening infection and several other complicated health issues. After treatment and surgery, I recovered, but the close call shook me intensely. I did not truly deal with this until years later. When it came time to apply for my doctoral programs, I shared my list with my mentor, Dr. Carol Vazquez. She asked me why there were no Ivy league Universities on my list. I looked at her in shock; I certainly couldn't get into an Ivy! She, in her characteristic fiery way said, "You most certainly can. You are bright, have the grades and other skills to prove it. You WILL apply to Ivys." I went and did my research and came back to Dr. Vazquez defeated; I told her that I liked both Harvard and Yale's program, but I just couldn't afford even the application fees. She looked at me, turned around, and wrote me a check for the application fees on the spot. I broke into tears; her kindness, compassion, and belief in me will be something that I will never forget. To this day, I can't even think about it without getting tears in my eyes.
Dr. Vazquez and Me!
I got into every program (15 this time) that I had applied to that year. When I applied to Yale, I was insanely lucky that one professor saw my application, pulled it out of the ginormous pile (over 300 applications for 2 positions), and contacted me. He asked me to provide him with more information. I had prepared a website and learned html (thanks for the help, Michael Grandner!) to put a portfolio of my materials online. I contacted all of my previous mentors at Cortland and New Paltz to send additional letters directly to him. I spoke with him on the phone and did my best to share my interests and talents. For what I was told, when the committee met, he sat down, plopped my file on the table and said, "I'm taking her." I have no doubt in my mind that I would never have gotten into Yale without Edward Zigler. He even called me to tell me himself that I was accepted. I was 24 years old.
My first year at Yale. And that is Laila. Yes, she's that old.
Once I got to Yale, I had to deal with some not-so-great cultural competence in faculty, continued health issues, and a complete change of research area. Luckily, Ed Zigler directed me to work with Matia Finn-Stevenson, who became another amazing mentor to me. I continued to work with Ed and Matia, becoming involved in school-based programming, mental health/ social emotional learning in schools, and program evaluations. I learned an amazing amount in my time there. I was also a teaching assistant for Peter Salovey one semester; his ability to capture and motivate student learning was nothing short of amazing. He was a stand up-comic, an actor, and absolute font of knowledge in a way that I learned could make students enjoy class time. Half way through Yale, I also took time off to deal with the re-emergence of my PTSD symptoms that initially began with the near-death illness. As much as I tried to ignore them, I could not keep those symptoms at bay. Taking a break over the summer allowed me to work hard on my own mental health, and got back on my feet, working through those issues once again. Thanks to some amazing friends (Jessica & Joe Trzaska) and a stay in California (thanks again Michael Grandner!), I was doing much better. I remember Matia sent me an email after that saying, "I know you can do this! I believe in you!" I don't think she knew that I cut it out and pasted it by my desk so that I could look at every day. The day I presented my dissertation defense was also life-altering. I had made it! After it was over and my readers had left, Ed and I sat there just talking for hours. I was his last student; and I had reached a milestone of which I could have never dreamed as a child - I received my Doctoral degree from Yale University. I was 29. I published my dissertation, accepted a post-doctorate position with the School of the 21st Century, and got married to kind of the most amazing man ever, Mike Ginicola. Yale will forever be a place that I am incredibly fond of - they gave me the prestige that comes with Yale, amazing learning and teaching experiences, and mentors that made me a true academic. I could never repay Ed or Matia for what they provided to me; I know that my career and the people that I help are all possible because of their encouragement and support.

Ed toasting us at a wedding celebration Matia & 21C threw for Mike & I
Flip Flop, wedges, Misty? Really?!?
At my Yale Graduation, I remember my father saying, "I wished we could have helped you more." And I looked at him dumbfounded. He had given me everything. He believed in me always, my parents bailed me out numerous times when I had no money left after buying books or my car broke down, and above all else, they taught me how to work hard. I was fighting through tears, but I was able to tell him just that.

Yale graduation
As I planned for my post-doctorate position in the fall, I realized that I would sincerely miss teaching. I had learned to love it; I could never be happy without being in a classroom. I sent my teaching portfolio to all the local colleges and was starting to get invitations to teach classes. At the time, I just so happened to have a new mentee, Christina Saccoccio, working for me in my Yale lab. She told me she had just started a graduate program in Counseling and School Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University, and that they had an open faculty position. She took my portfolio to the department and I received a call that afternoon. After an interview and a class presentation, I was offered the job. I was ecstatic to receive my first academic job before I turned 30. Christina and I are friends to this day, and again, without her telling me of the position, I would not be where I am today.

Before starting Academia. So young, tanned, relaxed...
As an Assistant Professor, I realized that people that thought academia was cushy, had no idea what was really required or were not doing it right. I was handed 4 old syllabi in my first semester and told to get my courses ready. I had to research the topics, get the books myself, research the accrediting organizations' requirements, understand student needs and plan 14 weeks of lectures and activities. Each 2.5 hour lecture takes about 10 hours to plan and create. Do the math. Times 4 classes. It wasn't pretty. I also continued my research and service activities. As hard as it was, I adored my students. I found myself settling into an academic identity as a teacher and researcher, focusing on issues of cultural competence in counseling. As my identity started to shift, I began to seek the requirements (clinical hours and education) to gain my license as a Professional Counselor as well. And I had another comrade-in-arms or work wife, depending on the day, Margaret Generali, who started at the same time I was. She is funny, kind, authentic and an amazingly hard worker. We clung to each other like we were on a life raft to survive our first few years.

All Professor-like
It was half way through this experience, that I unfortunately experienced sexual harassment. I was so horrified, but after finding out that this was behavior that had persisted in our department and had happened to 4 other women, past and present (that we knew of). Fearing what would happen if it went unchecked and that it had potentially happened to students (which we later learned it had), I went forward with a complaint. This will rank top 5 of the worst experiences in my life. I will forever be grateful for the support of Margaret Generali, Cheri Smith, Louisa Foss and Uchenna Nwachuku during this time. 2 years after going through the complaint, when I went up for tenure and promotion to Associate Professor, the Dean (no longer there) and Chair (no longer there) put the same man on my Department Evaluation Committee. When I spoke up that I thought it was ridiculously unethical, I was told that I should "be over it" and "that everything would be alright". Even after always having the highest level of evaluations every year, having a solid CV, just winning an outstanding teaching award, and leading our programs to successful accreditation, I was given an abysmal evaluation by the Department Evaluation Committee, Chair, and Dean. I felt insane (was this seriously happening???), victimized, and retaliated against. If it weren't for the support of my colleagues, particularly Cheri Smith and Uchenna Nwachuku, my friends and my husband, I'm not sure I would have made it through this. Luckily, the University Committee and Provost saw my work as it truly was and recommended me for both tenure and promotion. Getting that letter in the mail was like a mountain being removed from my shoulders: I cried in relief. Our entire department shifted after this event. The unsupportive people left and our department was left with an amazing group of people, who I call not only my colleagues, but my friends. Although I am incredibly grateful to all of these supportive faculty, I also owe a debt to those unsupportive asshats that made my life hell. It kicked my motivation and energy into super-gear and led me to pursue social justice and advocacy personally, and in practice, service, and research.

With Uchenna at the Tenure & Promotion Celebration
Cheri Smith, Me, & Louisa Foss-Kelly.
Margaret, why the heck don't we have any pictures together???

As an Associate professor, I lived at work. My friends and husband became used to me being absent, exhausted, and/or sick, and yet still supported me. I pushed myself to achieve and found that in doing so, had made a real impact on my career, school, university, and the field of counseling. However, my self-care really suffered; no, maybe suffered was not the right term. I never fully developed my self care. From age 14 to age 35, I had never learned to truly take care of myself. I had a wake up-call at 34, I needed to be present for my life and my family and friends; I began making sure that I was there for them in the same way that I was for work. Then, I had a child; and then another within 21 months. To keep producing as an academic, be a good friend and family member, AND to be a good mother, self-care became necessary for my survival. It took me about 3 years and some solid good nights of sleep, but I had finally felt balanced. I began to say no to things, ask for help, plan realistically, and prioritize. I spent a brief stint in counseling again to support these new behaviors, and I finally found a way to care for myself, achieve, and be present for my family and friends. (p.s. there's an app for that!)
Learning a new role, much harder than graduating from Yale
When I applied for promotion to full professor, I got to see my career's work thus far all put together. From my hire in August of 2006 to  Fall 2015, I had accumulated a 30-page Curriculum Vitae. I had taught 97 classes of 16 different courses for a total of 271 credits. When I sent a call out for recommendation letters, I received 23 letters from students and faculty. I pretty much cried reading each one. To hear that you had made a positive impact on someone's life is so humbling. I had been evaluated by over 1,300 students with positive evaluations. I had 36 publications, 80 presentations, and had received 26 small grants. My work had been recognized by the University, local newspapers, CNN, and Fox CT Morning Show. I had served on 54 total committees/positions and, in the fall, still had 22 service assignments. I took 12 college credits for retraining, had gained 3,000 hours of counseling experience, and had 102.5 credits of continuing education. I became licensed as a Professional Counselor. I had 8 professional memberships, served as a consultant and expert witness, and had a private practice. I was proud of my relationships with my sons; I had been able to be close to them, help them with their special needs, and be mentally well. My relationship with my husband continues to be strong; and I am proud that he was also bit by the over-achieving bug and is being recognized with awards on his amazing work as an educator.

What 10 Years of Work Looks Like in Binder Form
None of this has been easy, but I am incredibly blessed to be surrounded by amazing, supportive people. I sincerely enjoy the faculty that I work with; they are amazing people. As this process was 1,000 times smoother than applying for my Associate Professor, I began thinking a few months ago about life after promotion to full Professor. I get to choose to do what I wish now. Will I slow down from my break-neck speed? Yes. But I will always pour my heart and soul into my teaching. I will continue to do research on those who need someone to advocate for them. I will continue to be known for multicultural counseling and competence. I will serve in ways that bring quality to my program, department, school, university, state and national field. I will continue my private practice and help children, adolescents, and adults find their path. I will also continue to dedicate my life to compassion, kindness, and increased understanding for those who are the most vulnerable among us.

The Over-Achieving Ginicolas
Looking back where I was 22 years ago when I started my college journey, if one event or person hadn't have been there, I wouldn't be here today. The pain, the joy, the support, the hard work, the long days, the growth, the learning, the mistakes, and the pride are overwhelming to consider. From a weird kid, broken in many ways, in an impoverished rural area to a full professor, living comfortably, happily married with two kids. All I really feel at this moment (in addition to massive relief for getting the official letter), is immense gratitude for the mentors, mentees, faculty, students, family, and friends that carried me to this place. I hope I have impacted your life in a fraction of the way that you have impacted mine.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why Transgender Bathroom Laws Are A Problem

Although this is not my typical parenting post, I am always doing lots of advocacy in the community, on our campus university, and on and off social networking. Recently I responded to a few Facebook posts that supported the Anti-Trans Bathroom Law in North Carolina and was asked to put my response in a shareable format, so here it is! 

I understand the fear surrounding this issue - we all want to keep our children safe. I'm the mother of two small boys and thinking of someone hurting them in any way is very scary. And this fear of the bathroom predator has certainly been garnered and perpetuated by the political arguments and advertisements on this issue. The message is clearly that our little girls will be preyed upon by predators in the bathroom.


Let's talk about a few important points:

1. Nothing can stop a man from walking into the women's bathroom or dressing room before anyone even heard of someone who is transgender. Of course, if someone looks like a man and is in the women's bathroom, they are not transgender - This woman below, as an example, is a female trans person. Not exactly the creeper in the plaid shirt hovering over the parentless child in the restroom. The man in those advertisements is clearly not trans; really, the suggestion is that predators will pretend to be trans in order to molest children. So let's take a look at that idea.

2. Fortunately, preying on children in bathrooms is incredibly rare. The reason is that bathrooms are incredibly risky in terms of being discovered, which is why it is rare. They can't control who comes in and when; and, they don't know if the children's parents are there as well. Having someone specifically pretend to be Trans to prey on someone in a bathroom has happened only one recorded time - in Canada by someone who was mentally ill. When a child is abused or molested, unfortunately it is about 90% likely to be either a family member or an acquaintance. Predators do NOT lurk in bathrooms awaiting the chance to pounce on girls the moment their parents turn their back. More frighteningly, they hide in plain sight. When a child is abused in any form, it is likely their parents (see graph above). When it isn't the parent, it is their partners, neighbors, family members, religious leaders, and acquaintances. 

When you look specifically at sexual abuse, you can see from the graph to the side, that again, it is far more likely to be someone the child knows and trusts (only about 1% is by a stranger). These perpetrators groom children, getting the child and/or their parents to trust them before molesting them. So for all practical purposes, this law does NOTHING to prevent molestation. Also, remember that this law does not target pedophiles at all. Even if bathroom molestations were a true risk, if the perpetrator was male, they are still allowed to use the male public restroom, putting our boys "at risk" in the way that people believe the young girls are at risk. So, truly, who does this law help or protect? If we really want to keep children safe, we would be doing more education and support for families - because clearly the child is in the most danger from their direct family or friend of the family. Yes, it would be a lot simpler and easier to understand and protect against if stranger danger was the greatest risk for sure, but it is clearly not. And even when a stranger does attack a child, the restroom is not an environment that they target. So if it can't protect against molestation, what does the law really do?

3. The argument against trans people using the bathroom basically works like this:
Pedophiles could pretend to be trans people; therefore trans people should be put at risk. While a pedophile pretending to be trans molesting someone is basically at the level of myth, people who are trans are at a HUGE risk of being abused, bullied, harassed and attacked. Making someone, like Sarah in the picture to the right, who looks like a female, use the male bathroom, will clearly out her as trans and/or assure that she will be harassed and or attacked. Or maybe you prefer Aydian, pictured below to use the ladies room. Take a wild guess what would happen if Aydian walks into the womens' room in any public restroom.

4. This argument also violates trans people's rights. Again, the argument goes like this: Pedophiles could pretend to be trans people; therefore we should take their right away to use the bathroom that matches their identity. Let's make a similar argument with a twist. Priests have been found to molest children before, much more frequently then we ever knew. Therefore, no priest should ever be allowed around children. In this situation, priests actually have molested thousands of children, unlike trans people. So why not hold all of
them accountable for the actions of those pedophiles, because after all, another pedophile is VERY likely to use religion to molest children. But we would not ever make this argument about priests or pastors, because you can't hold people accountable or punish them for things they've never done. But this is exactly what the bathroom arguments/laws are doing. Not to mention that the people who actually DO molest children actually get very little to no punishment for doing so, like Dennis Hastert, the politician who admitted to being a serial molester and only received 15 months for paying blackmail money to hide it. The vast majority of rape and molestation cases never go to trial; the treatment of women and children are so poor that most do not even report the crime. Women in some states actually have to pay for their own rape kits. Instead of punishing people for peeing in a room that doesn't match their genitalia, doesn't it make more sense to focus on and reform the laws that allow molesters to get away with the abuse of children?

5. Another huge issue is how in the world will they enforce this law? Will they just approach anyone who looks trans and make a citizen's arrest? Force them to disrobe? Show your ID to use the bathroom? Imagine someone asking you to do any of those things. How humiliating that would be. This is not going to just impact trans people, who will more likely be asked to

show their identification in the bathroom of their birth sex, when they are following the law, it will also impact anyone whose gender is a little different than the norm - this could be due to typical gender variance, sexual/affectional orientation, a hormonal disturbance/ disability, or the person being intersex (having both or ambiguous genitalia, present at birth. We find it rude for strangers to ask too personal questions, but this law allows you to ask anyone that looks a little different what they have between their legs. Think for a moment how that would feel if someone did that to you. Violating? None of their business? Exactly.

6. If you are against strict gun regulations, it is important to think critically about why you don't support gun restrictions, but do support regulations on toilets. Some of those arguments include: 1) you cannot stop people from doing bad things, 2) that freedom is essential to our rights, 3) big brother should not be regulating everything, 4) laws do not apply to criminals - they will not follow them anyway, so it will only impact law-abiding citizens, and 5) the world isn't perfect and you cannot regulate it to perfection. All of those same arguments can be used against the bathroom law here; and are even more ridiculous since instead of talking about a lethal weapon, we are talking about a potty. One key difference, however, is that if you are in support of this law, it is likely not going to impact you or take away your rights.

7. Finally, it is important to know about what trans people experience. Having a gender in one's mind and body disconnect is a result of a mismatch of hormones in the right time during the fetal period. Testosterone and estrogen, and a few other key hormones, are what makes us female or male; and that gender is not binary in the brain, it is on a spectrum from very masculine to very feminine. The secondary sex characteristics, such as facial hair, square jaw, larger facial features, adam's apple, etc., all result from this delicate process.
It results in the person having a brain which appears to be the opposite sex (actually visible
on brain scans) and a body which doesn't match. A similar mismatched gender population is those who are intersexed (formerly called hermaphrodite) - they are just born with this mismatch on the outside (they will also be impacted by this law). There are many ways that this process can vary from the 'norm' from creating gender variance, to creating a genetic condition where someone is genetically male, born a female because their cells did not receive testosterone, and then turn male in puberty (called guevedoces). There are MULTIPLE conditions like this, teaching us one thing, that gender is not a neat, uncomplicated process. Other characteristics and disabilities occur during this sensitive period of development as well, but none do we punish so harshly, for something that is completely out of the control of the baby.

Gender is so important in our culture; and having a mismatched one will get you harassed, bullied, and abused. Think of how often little boys are told to "man up", not like girl things, not show emotions. When someone does not conform to gender, their life is hell - trans kids are likely to be suicidal as young children, as young as age 3 - that's how awful their lives are made. It is further made miserable by the fact that if they voice their feelings/thoughts, this abuse can come from parents, teachers and peers who believe that they can change this child. But, no amount of intervention can change the gender of the brain - in anyone. 

If these kids are lucky enough to have supportive parents, then they will undergo a delicate and risky hormonal replacement therapy, if they can afford it - these are about $1,500 a year and some insurance companies won't cover it - they will need this for the rest of their life. The male to female trans youth can get a sex change when they turn 18, if they can afford it AND after a year of being on the hormones and getting counseling. These are anywhere from $30,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. They require extensive surgery and intervention. Not everyone can afford this nor does everyone want this. Sometimes the surgeries can have negative side effects, like removing the ability to orgasm. Ever. And they don't very often do the surgery for female to male trans individuals - it's not very successful. So, a trans person's genitalia may not always match what their gender is.

Then even if they are successful, if they are not "passable" or are outed in some way, in most states, they can be fired and kicked out of their rental properties, with no legal recourse. They are very likely to be harassed and are at risk for hate crimes. And now we'd like to take their right to pee in a public bathroom away from them. Because that is what they are doing - they can't possibly use the other bathroom - they WILL be harassed because they clearly do not belong in those bathrooms (as in the pictures above).

I always ask people to please, please, please take a few minutes to check out Riley's story to help them understand these kids. 

I completely understand that most people cannot truly understand a transgender experience; I also do not have any idea what it would be like. I have always felt female. I also understand that it is very difficult to understand the complex nature and biology of gender, gender presentation and expression. I also understand that this issue seems to challenge people's religious and gender beliefs in a way that makes people defensive and angry. I would only ask that, no matter what your beliefs, that you think critically about the impact of your stated opinion and support of this law. If you cannot argue with any of the above reasons (particularly the ones about constitutional rights), then you have to admit that your position is purely out of bias, not concern for little girls. 

And I would hope that we can also think of little girls like Riley, who was born with what she calls a birth defect that made her suicidal. She just wants to be normal, and has a loving family who fear that someone will hurt her.  This law just made that possibility much more likely for a lot of little girls like Riley.

If we can't possibly have empathy for someone that different than us, then we need to at least acknowledge that each of us should probably treat others in the way that we would want to be treated. If we had a condition that no one understood, we might want the world to be a little more understanding, and certainly not demonize us or make unfair laws targeting us. 

No matter what your beliefs are, thank you for reading this. Light, love, and compassion to you and your loved ones.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Screw You, Coyote...

So, some of you remember my Facebook post earlier this week when I had a coyote cross my path. In Native American lore, that means that I am about to learn an important life lesson but in a "trickster" way. There is no English word that translates this correctly, but essentially think of sarcastic, ironic jerk who teaches you something useful. I've only gotten coyote in readings or in dreams, never as a live animal crossing my path, so I wasn't looking forward to this lesson.
The beautiful jerk totem
Shortly after, I found out that a friend of mine had been in an accident and was in critical condition (not the lesson). But it got me thinking about mortality and how I could leave my kids any day and no longer be here for them. What do I want to leave them with? Then I had the most busy, stressful week at work, with Wilson also being sick and cranky, getting up frequently at night. Yesterday, even though he is better now, I had to leave him at preschool freaking out, screaming, grabbing for me and sobbing. The last two days he has gotten up twice each night and has been equally irritable and cranky. This morning at 5 a.m., we had to literally take him out in the car (so he wouldn't wake up his brother) because he wouldn't stop screaming and losing his mind for no reason (that we could see or he could say). Needless to say, I was not looking forward to taking him to school this morning, since he already told me in the whiniest voice possible "I don't wanna go to school".
Wilson yesterday at Preschool
As I was driving him to school this morning, I saw that I had a long silent call from my friend who was in the accident (who is in a coma so he couldn't have called me). It was just completely silent for 2 minutes, so I assume it was an accidental call from his roommate who has his phone. But it got me thinking again - and I realized I don't want to leave Wilson with the frustration and sadness that we both feel in many situations where he is struggling to transition. I hate it, he hates it, but I got so busy with needing to get to work, that I didn't see any other possibility. And all of a sudden it hit me...We can't control that we have to go to work and he has to go to school. I could teach him my existential way of thinking - you can't control what you need to do/ what happens to you, but you can control how you react, how you respond.
An important point...

So after we parked, I opened Wilson's door and lowered my face to his. "Are you listening to me?" "Yes," he said, looking at me seriously. "You have to go to school and I have to go to work. There's nothing we can do about that. But, we can either have fun while we do it OR we can be miserable and angry. What do you want to do?" He said, "I like to be angry." I sighed; oh yes, I know. "Well, we could do fun things, like skip to the door or pretend to be trucks. Or we could be mad. Which one sounds better?" He eagerly said, "I want to have fun." I smiled and said, "Let's say this together: I choose fun!" He smiled and said with me, "I choose fun!" 
My new mantra
So we skipped to the door; To be frank it was kind of a hop for me, I'm a little out of practice. We made loud beeping noises as I tapped the numbers on the keypad. I held him upside down in the lobby and we laughed as his hat fell off. He pressed the keys on the computer and after each correct number, I kissed his finger. Then we gave each other high fives. Then we pretended to be trucks on the way to the classroom; I was the tow truck and he was the broken car. Then we sat down at the table for his breakfast and made a new high-five handshake, which Wilson named the "truckie truck"; it was essentially a fist bump that we "vroomed" and then crashed. Astonishingly, this was the quickest and easiest transition he had made in weeks. He was giggling and gave me a kiss and said incredibly casually, "Bye, mommy," as I stood up.
The teachers told Wilson how proud they were of him and looked at me astonished. 'Had I drugged him?', said the look on their face. I laughed; I said, "We had a conversation this morning about how we had to go to school and work, but we could either have fun while we do it or be miserable. We choose fun." The teacher smiled, looked at me intently and said, "What an important life lesson!"

Screw You, Coyote! And Thank you.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Siblings: Love and Hate

I've been woefully behind on my blogs, but a question on how to deal with sibling fighting came up today in one of my FB groups, so I thought I would address it from a personal and developmental research level. 

When you have two children, this is how you imagine they will be there for each other: best friends. They'll love each other, protect each other and be BFFs. Beautiful, wonderful love.

But, just like everything else that has to do with children, it's mostly a myth. Or at least only captures PART of the siblings' complex relationship. It usually looks more like this:

 So, let's start with Awareness of Sibling Issues. Imagine your spouse/partner comes home one day and says, "I've got a big surprise for you! Now, you know I love spending time with you and you've been great. But I think our life will be more full with another wife. It will be great! We can spend time together and you can share all your belongings, and even your room! Won't that be fun?" Now, as tempting as having another full time parent in the house sounds, of course, we would strangle our spouse. But, this is the experience of a child who gets a sibling. They were the center of your world and now...poof. They are not. If you have twins or the siblings were really close in age, they still have to contend with another being around them CONSTANTLY who may be very different in temperament. Think about how many times you get angry at your spouse (probably a lot more after kids...). Think about all the things they do that annoy you. Now imagine you have NO ability to suppress your anger, communicate your anger or even understand those feelings. A child alone willstruggle to communicate, learn social skills, learn to regulate their emotions, and bounce back from negative feelings. Now imagine that times two, with more chances during the day to lose it because you have a built-in annoying sibling who follows you everywhere.

Onto knowledge: Children during the toddler years and preschool are learning some hugely important physical, cognitive and social-emotional things. In terms of social and emotional skills, children can't really understand the whole sharing thing until about 3 years old. Even then, it's tough. It is NORMAL for children aged 1 to 4 to fight, throw tantrums and generally, just piss each other off. That doesn't mean you let it happen, you should always intervene. Every time you intervene, you have a "teachable moment" - a moment where you are moving them in the direction of being better friends and learning social and emotional skills.

Finally, the Skills! Here are a few things that can help!
  1. Never, ever, ever, play the "You better or your sibling will..." You better eat that or I'm going to give that to your sister. If you don't put that away, I'm going to give it to your brother. Although this is super effective in getting your child to comply to something, this increases sibling rivalry. It makes their sibling a competitor, not an ally.
  2. Do play the "My turn, your turn" game. Play something together and take turns. Instead of grabbing, when they want the object, you say "My turn!" Reinforce and praise when they do this well.
  3. Help develop language (if a child has a speech delay, get help right away - this can cause a lot of frustration on their part) and emotion vocabulary. Comment on feelings all the time - how you feel, how characters in books and videos feel - ask questions about feelings. Label the feeling the child has throughout the day. Watch the movie Inside Out. Understanding the emotion is key to regulating emotions. I use a set of dog-themed emotion cards that I made and laminated with Wilson to talk and act out feelings as well.
  4. When my son wanted to take something from his brother, I also taught him the replacement game. I would tell him to go get another toy for his brother to see if he wanted something else. If he dropped the original toy, then Wilson could have it. He got incredibly skilled at sibling toy distraction.
  5. If Wilson refused to share something, the necessary consequences were that the toy was removed. I would give one warning, "We need to share that or the toy goes bye-bye!" 
  6. If one of the sibling hits the other, the best strategy that I have found is to separate them immediately and say a single message, "We do not hit." or "Hands to your own body." Then I would attend to the victim of said hitting - hug them and make sure they were ok. Then I would turn to the child who hit, which was usually a sobbing mess because they know they did wrong and believe you are mad at them. I would then hug that child to help them calm down. And then talk to them. Label the emotion - I know you are angry, but we never hit. Sometimes a calm down kit can be incredibly helpful as well. 
  7. Spend time with each child alone. Make sure each child gets plenty of attention - not just the squeaky wheel (the child good at getting attention). Also make sure they get time with other significant others (the other parent, grandparents) alone too. 
  8. Rinse and repeat, be consistent, and let time pass.
When Waylon was first born, Wilson was AWFUL. He was a struggle alone, but we worried a lot for Waylon because he got beat up a lot. Wilson struggled a lot with his emotional regulation. We did all of the above steps and did a lot of "divide and conquer" - we each would take one child - Waylon was content playing at home, which fit me. Wilson liked to run errands and get out of the house, which fit Mike. At 3 years for Wilson and 19 months for Waylon, they are now really good with each other. In fact, tonight, Wilson moved Waylon's high chair close to him and said, "He's my best friend, mama!" There's no hitting and pushing anymore, although they do still struggle with sharing. But it never incites aggression at all anymore. So, there is hope - it's just responsiveness, consistency and time!

There are some good books on the topic too:
Brothers & Finally Friends (A Different Kind of BFF)
Picture Taken By Laura Elyse Photography

Friday, May 22, 2015

Changing Our Narrative: From Difficult to Sensitive

As Wilson has gotten older and we have added one easy-tempered infant to the mix, the impact of Wilson's difficult temperament on all of us have become more and more apparent. We have found a good way of reacting, but it requires endless patience and ultimate consistency and persistence (something so readily available when you get no sleep and have 2 children under 3). Although it would be very easy just to let him run amok, I know that it will invite future behavioral and emotional problems. So, we cannot be permissive. I also do not choose to be punitive or to use corporal punishment; although there have been times despite my Buddha-esque nature, I have just wanted to shake the crap out of him (Is it wrong to say that shaking him sounds like it would feel so good sometimes???). I know given the research, the brief stint of time-out that we did with him and how things have affected Mike (who has the twin temperament - p.s. there really should have been a disclaimer on our marriage license) that punishment only serves to increase his anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed, teaches him that violence is a resolution, reinforces a mistrust of us as parents and increases his inner emotionality. So, we have chosen to be responsive. We continually correct, ask him to perform a behavior in the right way, reinforce, discuss, explain, distract, prevent and respond. It's sort of exhausting; I want a drink just thinking about it.

I have been struggling with not only how to best handle his temperament, but also how to describe it. I have toyed with hot mess, emo, crazytown, shoot me and Oh God, why? But, being a psychologist, I know the power of words. By using the term difficult temperament repeatedly (which I have), I know I am making an impression on myself and Wilson. I feel more and more drained when just thinking about what I have to do when he is "difficult". He is hearing that he is hard to deal with, and while true, he may internalize those messages negatively and lower his self-worth and self-esteem. What I have been struggling with is how to help him on one hand understand that his high needs do not make him a bad person, but on the other realize that he has to be careful with how he impacts himself and others.

Fifteen to twenty percent of all children fall somewhere on the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) continuum. Although many of these individuals are introverts (or slow to warm temperament), a substantial amount are from the high needs/ difficult temperament. These children are capable of taking in more information and processing a substantial amount more than others; they notice more on their environment and reflect more on what they see or feel. As a result, they tend to be very intelligent, empathic, conscientious, creative and careful. They are the advisers, strategists and planners. They keep others safe and healthy. In evolutionary terms, we cannot survive without them. If everyone was easy-going, we would all die out as a species. "Oh, hey! Look at that bear! I think I'll go say hello!" You need those individuals who are anxious, pay attention for danger and can see things clearly to survive. Waylon and I, although intelligent and thoughtful, are not the pause to check kind of people. We are about living life in a nonchalant, sometimes messy, manner. We could not survive without Wilson and Mike. But the reverse is also true; HSPs and Non-HSPs need each other to survive and thrive.

So what is the dark side of being an HSP? Well, it is incredibly easy to get overwhelmed. Because they take in so much through their senses, they cannot multi-task very well, nor can they handle over-stimulation. I remember when Mike and I first lived together and I would greet him at the door to hug him and say hello (honeymoonish behavior - I now grunt at him when he gets home). After a few days, he looked at me and said, "I need a moment! Just give me some space - like 5 minutes when I get home so that I can decompress!! PLEASE!!" "Ok cranky pants - Mums the word!" I said laughing.

It was my first insight into the fact that Mike experienced his world very differently than I did. Physical and social contact calm me, but I don't notice everything that happens. In fact, I am quite skilled at cutting things out of my periphery (like dishes, laundry and anything else that needs to be done). But for my HSP boys,  too much stimulation can lead them to shut down, in which case, you readily see their dark side. They are suddenly stoutly un-empathic, lashing out, angry, irritable, withdrawing and emotional. Not all HSPs are alike; some personalities are more difficult than others. There are multiple types of HSPs and profiles, but let me walk you through Wilson's specific sensitivity profile.

Let me paint the picture of what sensitivity really means for him. Wilson has what is known as physical intensity. He feels more pain than most children and has incredibly sensitive hearing. When Wilson has a diaper rash, his responses are incredibly heightened. He screams and refuses to walk. He cries so loudly that you think that his leg bones seriously must be shattered. Not kidding. It takes about 30 minutes to change his diaper, slowly cleaning, blowing on the area, reassuring him, hugging him, putting on diaper cream (just as slowly) and arranging the diaper so that it does not rub up against the affected area. Conversely, my easy tempered infant who has my temperament and pain threshold, does not even flinch when he has had a rash. Once he had a bleeding rash and he giggled when I cleaned it. Giggled. Wilson's shirt tag once brushed up against his neck the wrong way. We spent the next 40 minutes, off and on, blowing on his neck, rubbing it, scratching it and checking it, AFTER I had removed the tag. This is not an unusual occurrence. He needs this level of help with many things...on a daily basis.

He also experiences emotional intensity. This means that he feels all emotions strongly. He is also very affected by others' moods and feelings. When he is happy, his smile can make you feel pure unfiltered joy. When he feels frustrated, his anger is palpable. He is hostile and it bursts out of him like rays of hate-shine. These are not little tantrums; they are complete breakdowns. You can feel his desperation and sense of being overwhelmed; he is not being manipulative. He is desperate and in despair. You can see that even happiness can be over-stimulating at a point and he can breakdown in the same way.

Wilson also has a somewhat complex presentation in that he has novelty low threshold and novelty seeking. This means that rather than be overwhelmed and shy away from the environment which can challenge his highly sensitive physical and emotional system, he seeks out novelty. He enjoys new things, learning and engaging with others. His is arguably the most difficult presentation. These types are easily bored and yet easily overwhelmed. They have a narrow window of optimal arousal. They can sometimes be seen as quite self-destructive because they desire to do an incredible amount of activity and yet will become overwhelmed by what you wanted to do and shut down. Awesome sauce!

Wilson has a high activity level. He needs constant stimulation and is running from morning until bedtime. He has a high intensity of emotional response. He is our true drama king. Whining, hysterical crying and hysterical laughter are commonplace. He has a medium level of rhythmicity. He thrives best on a schedule and is very predictable with things like when he needs sleep. Other times, though, like with his eating, he is incredibly unpredictable. One day, he will eat everything in the cupboard; the next, he seems to be surviving on milk and oxygen. Wilson also has a low level of adaptability. It is very difficult for him to transition, especially to something over which he feels he has no control. We have to give him 30 minute warnings to transitions, get him physically ready, explain it repeatedly, have him repeat us, offer something desired after the transition and MAYBE he will make the transition smoothly. He is also a social approacher, meaning that he seeks out others and novelty, showing little fear. He has a high level of persistence with low distractibility. Once on a task, he will finish it; likewise if he wants to do something, it is incredibly hard to deter him or distract him from it. He has figured out every kind of childproof  lock, knows how to open all of the gates, operate the telephone, the remotes and our iPhones...whether we were hoping for some of that or not.

So that is the problem profile of my little Wilson. A social, excitable almost-preschooler who seeks out exciting events only to be easily overwhelmed by them, both physically and emotionally. So, what are the remnants of being easily overwhelmed? He notices EVERYTHING. Scratches, tears, a new pimple (thanks for that one), subtle differences in others and in his environment. And if it is something that can't be fixed, it bothers him immensely. When he is overwhelmed, he can become anxious and frightened OR hostile and angry. Anxious means he cries that a leaf outside is a dreaded "fuzzy" or bug. He is scared that he may encounter a bug and might refuse to touch something outside. When he is hostile, he will cry, slap, throw himself with the intensity of a total meltdown. He is typically easily consoled (thank you Birth to Three), but he can get to the place of total meltdown quite quickly. He is particularly reactive to his brother who wants to play with his toys that he has neatly lined up. He struggles with sharing his favorite toys (not uncommon for a preschooler, much less a 2-year-old), but his intense reactivity to having a car taken out of the line he has created is always reminiscent of a hysterical crazed lunatic. 

All of this is why the narrative of his difficult temperament has really resonated for me. As a parent, it means being hypervigilant and preventative. It means explaining everything. It means never sitting down. It means having to consider everything in every situation. It means never being able to relax or turn off. In a few words, it just plain sucks. That is true; and it has been my narrative up to this point. But this blog signifies my willingness to let it go. Because Wilson is many other things than just his sensitivity.

Wilson is creative; he loves to solve problems and puzzles. He loves mastering his environment or figuring things out - he is quite the scientist in many ways. He likes to color and to finger paint and to make things with play-doh or putty. He loves feeling different sensations in a focused way and sharing them with others.

He is intensely social; he wants to talk, to hug, to experience life with others. He loves his mama and daddy, Waylie, Abuela Susi, Abuela Dina, and his 2 Aunt Jess', his Uncle Joe and Aunt Gaby (who I am fairly sure he has a huge crush on). He loves his friend Taryn and his doggies.

He is quite compassionate and caring of his doggie sisters, being very gentle, feeding them and loving them any chance he gets. He loves dressing up, especially his hats and loves how everyone tells him that he is cute.

He loves mental games, like figuring out his letters and numbers, something he had done all on his own. He loves singing and dancing. He is incredibly skilled physically. He learns things, particularly physical things, quickly and with little illustration.

He has a great sense of humor and makes jokes very often (although at his age they are limited to farting, burping and falling - or wait, is that just a male thing?).

He is very interested in my spirituality, reminding me that Buddha tells us to take a breath, playing with my grounding rocks or lighting candles. He is friendly, sweet and enigmatic. His ability to take a photo is way more photogenic than the rest of our family. And he is full of love.

His hugs and kisses are very much the highlights of my days. And he is also sensitive. Sensitive to physical stimuli which is why he is probably so physically skilled.

He is emotionally sensitive, which is why he is so affectionate and caring of the dogs and why he loves our affection and hugs. He is active and intense, which will make him a great leader. Someone always willing to go the extra mile and figure out problems to better others. And despite how tired I get, I am proud to be his mama.