Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Practicing Vulnerability and Asking for Help

Why is it so difficult to ask for help?  We Americans value independence, persistence, and determination but we are rarely honest about the impact of this value system.  People are praised for seemingly individual achievements when really, none of us can claim success independently.  We achieve long-term goals by cultivating persistence, but we gloss over the moments when we felt defeated.  Determination means you push through adversity, but should it come at the expense of our own self-care?  

Why does asking for help feel like failure?

Maybe it's because we fear being someone's disappointment.  But when we show our struggles to people who care about us, they are compelled to show you theirs.  They want to tell you "You are not alone in this life". Give people the opportunity to support you.  Don't make their decisions for them. Let them decide how to lift you up.  Even Dr. King needed to surround himself with people who built him up when he felt weak. (Selma plug!)

Maybe it's because we don’t want to admit imperfection. Maybe imperfection is a sign of weakness. But if we are more transparent about the struggle, then we can begin to see systemic trends that make life harder for some than others.  (I’m thinking of micro- and macroagressions against women and people of color, the LGBTQ community, parents in the workplace…perhaps you can think of other examples).  How can we advocate for change if we keep suffering in silence?

Maybe it's because vulnerability is uncomfortable. It is definitely difficult to let other people see your cracks. People ask how you are doing and they want to hear that you’re ok and things are good.  They can walk away and remain amazed by your awesomeness.  The problem is, this places the ability to do awesome things squarely on “awesome people.”  You hear an amazing story and think “I could never do anything like that.” When really, we all have the capacity to do amazing things. 

Nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer. But carrying the weight of life around while wearing a smile is exhausting.  When you feel like wallowing for a while, it is isolating and lonely when you don’t know that others before you have also wallowed on their way to success. So be vulnerable with someone today. Choose a person who cares about you, and tell them that you are lonely, joyful, in love, or in pain.  Give people a chance to surprise you. 

*Note: I’ve been reading, thinking, and talking about vulnerability a lot lately, and this book sparked my interest: Brene Brown “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Emotional Labor: When it Hurts to do the Work

This month, I have learned about the importance of taking a guilt-free break.  My research is on mental health among Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the D.R.  I’ve completed almost 60 in-depth interviews with people (a research assistant did 20 interviews).  In addition to questions about perceived discrimination, I have been asking people about depression and anxiety symptoms, coping strategies, and general life stressors.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that this work would have an emotional impact on me, but I was.

I was caught off guard when I started to feel my own feelings.  I mean, can you imagine feeling guilty for feeling guilty? Yeah, I went there…But here is how it started:

First, I felt the pressure and responsibility of being the “only one I’ve ever shared this with”.  Then the urge to help fix the situations that burdened people.  Then inadequate and ill-equipped to listen therapeutically…because I’m not a therapist. Then helpless, when it became clear that a major problem is poverty and I am not equipped to solve poverty in my remaining five months.  Next came the guilt of my own privileged position.  Then I dreaded going to my field site and decided I would never choose a research topic like this again.

I was overwhelmed.  So I started to talk about it.  I reached out to friends and colleagues who have also worked on emotional topics.  I wrote about it.  I read articles about it.  And I started to feel less alone and less guilty.

It also helped me to do “non-academic” things. Many of my respondents used “avoidance coping” – doing other things to take their minds off of daily stressors. (Note: I also felt ridiculous because I was asking them to talk, in depth, about things they would rather avoid thinking about.)  Anyway, avoidance coping is my thing, but I usually use work to cope with personal stressors.  In this case, the work was the stressor.  So I started reading fiction, painting, doing yoga, and watching Netflix.  The work was still there every day, but at least there were moments when I could completely not think about it.

So, this break was a good one.  In hindsight, I would have planned my research design with a break in mind, or maybe small breaks throughout the year to recharge.  Either way, I feel much better after a little distance.  

(Note: If you’re looking for a starting point, Arlie Hochschild and Sheryl Kleinman are sociologists who write about the emotional labor of fieldwork. Also, I bet social workers have good insight on this…)

*photo credit: http://www.liveandlovework.com/2013/09/20/its-break-time/

Friday, December 5, 2014

Pain and the Process of Healing

My research in the D.R. is on how discrimination impacts mental health. I’ve been doing interviews for a few months now and, although it feels like an obvious statement, many things impact mental health. Respondents do talk about discrimination, but they also talk about poverty, job loss, family tensions, marital conflict, and the death of loved ones – things that connect people across the globe as fellow human beings.

In the wake of highly publicized police brutality, the past month has been an emotional one for many of us.  People are deeply wounded and many feel betrayed by a system – a country – that is supposed to protect everyone’s right to life.  There are so many necessary conversations, and I think a conversation about healing is one of them. 

I shared a previous post on the tragic loss of our dear brother. I wrote that I wanted to bring my family back to this place “in search of healing”.  And I’m realizing that maybe healing is not a destination.  Maybe it is a continuum, a constant process.  When I reflect on how far I’ve come, I no longer have nightmares and flashbacks about the day.  I no longer feel broken, like my world was ripped from under my feet.  I no longer feel bitter when someone refers to ocean sounds as “soothing”.  But sometimes, I imagine the most tragic outcome possible when I’m away from loved ones.  And I still have to swallow negative thoughts when I find myself anticipating the worst. And I still have to reign in my fears that joy is only temporary.

A fellow blogger and friend recently wrote about how motherhood changes your body and mind in a way that makes it impossible to be the person you were before.  Not only that, it's an unrealistic expectation to think that you can go back to that person.  That’s how I imagine healing to be.  I will never be who I was before.  Nor should I try to be.  But I’m still healing.  

The point is, it's a process.  We may never know what it looks like to be "healed", and I imagine that there's variation in what people/communities need for their own healing.  I needed to stare my tragedy in the face in order to begin my healing process.  Maybe not everyone needs that.  But I did.

I asked one of my respondents how she copes with sadness when it comes up for her.  She told me that sad feelings are “passengers”, they come and go but they are always there.  My heart broke for her.  Some of us live in a continuous state of sadness, anger, worry, and fear – and have been for years…decades…centuries.  I’m still hurt, sad, angry, and afraid as black lives continue to be lost because of injustice.  But maybe we have to stare the pain in the face before the process can begin. It’s scary, uncomfortable, and difficult.  But maybe it’s one way for healing to begin...and maybe we can begin to see ourselves as fellow human beings sharing this world.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The New Normal – Finding Order in the Chaos Part II

Things are feeling really good here.  The preschooler loves going to school.  The toddler loves daycare. My husband found a part-time job he enjoys. My research couldn’t be going better.  Sometimes, with major life changes, I work myself up over what is to come, then when things are ok, I work myself up in anticipation of difficulties ahead.  So, I thought I’d take a moment to bask in this happy place and share our “new normal” with you.  I wrote about creating a work schedule in a previous post.  It was about our life juggling work and family in the U.S.  Now that we’re in the D.R., we’ve carved out a new routine that works for our family.

Here is our weekday schedule:

6:15-7:15am wake up and get dressed, get the kids dressed, give the kids breakfast, pack school lunches/snacks

7:15am – My partner drives the 4 year old to school on his way to work.  I put the toddler in his stroller and we walk to daycare. It’s a nice, cool, leisurely 5 minute walk where we imitate the sounds we hear (birds, dogs, roosters, and motorcycles)

7:30am – I am back at home. I tidy up from breakfast and check emails.

*I start my work day at 8am and there are two potential work days for me:

Work Day A – at home
8am – 12:30pm  Work from home: writing, reading, organizing the data I’ve collected.
12:30-2pm Go pick up the toddler from daycare, make lunch, lay him down for nap, make lunch for the 4 year old. My partner picks up the 4 year old at 1:15pm on his way in from work.

2-6pm  Continue working. Sometimes I work from home in our bedroom with the door closed to deter noisy children. Other times, I work in the eating area at a nearby grocery store.  The kids nap from 2-4pm. My partner is on duty when they wake up.

Work Day B – at my field site
8am-10am  Work from home: writing, emails, organizing

10am-1pm  Head to my field site. Do 1-2 interviews with people.

1-2pm Have  lunch. Maybe a cup of coffee. Leisurely conversations with people. Check in with my research assistant.  She does interviews in Haitian Creole so we use this time to talk about how things are going. My partner picks up both kids from daycare/preschool, makes them lunch, puts them down for naps.

2:30ish – 5pm  Do 1-2 more interviews. Sit and talk with people.

5-6pm Head home.

6-7pm– Make dinner.  Feed the kids.

7:30-8pm Bedtime routine for the kids: bath, pajamas, story, prayers, song, bed.

8pm-11pm  My partner and shower, eat, watch Hulu or Netflix, check in about our days, go to bed!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Post About Poop

We talk about poop so often in this house that I would be remiss not to write a blog post about it. Once I decided it was necessary, I thought “how can I tastefully write about poop so that I can still get a job in the future?” Then I thought, “people on hiring committees poop too, so…I’m just gonna go for it.”  We have been in the country for three months now and things seem to have stabilized for the moment. Here’s our poop story.

Month 1: Diarrhea
We were all adjusting to the food here, but the toddler and I dealt with frequent bouts of diarrhea.  I would venture to say I had diarrhea about 5 out of 7 mornings each week.  The general treatment is to hydrate and get acquainted with the BRAT diet – Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast.  I got a prescription for Azithromycin from my doctor before I left the U.S., but I never felt bad enough to take it...in retrospect, maybe I should have...ha!

Month 2: Constipation
The pre-schooler has dealt with constipation for about 2 out of 4 years of his life. We brought a vat of Miralax with us and we have definitely needed to use it for our sweet boy.  If we need a re-fill, we can find an equivalent medicine here, or we can have it refilled in the US and ask grandparents to pick it up and mail it to us.

Month 3: Stomach Virus
This month was the worst! The stomach virus that hit our household was ugly.

Bout #1) I woke up in the middle of the night vomiting, then I was out of commission for the entire next day with fatigue and a low fever.  I was convinced I was dying of some rare Caribbean disease, but by day 2 or 3, I was alive again.

Bout #2) First the preschooler fought off diarrhea and vomiting, then it attacked the toddler, then jumped back to the preschooler again!  I was in tears the morning I saw my 4 year old standing at the toilet, vomiting while poop ran down his leg.  We consulted the pediatrician we’ve gotten to know here and she recommended a stool culture to rule out amoebas/parasites/worms if things didn’t get better in a couple of days. But luckily, rest, Pedialyte, and the BRAT diet prevailed, and we all survived.

Friday, October 17, 2014

XYP! Examining Your Privilege

When you were somewhere between 8 and 10 years old, did you ever hear someone shout, “XYZ!!” while pointing at a classmate’s crotch and giggling?  Maybe you were doing the shouting, or maybe you were wearing the offending pants, but the point is that you needed to “examine your zipper” because it was unzipped and your underwear were probably showing.

Well, today, I’m shouting “XYP!”  My time doing research in the Dominican Republic has forced me to examine my privilege.  The thing about the zipper is that you don’t realize you’re unzipped until someone else points it out to you.  I think the same is true for privilege.  You don’t realize your privilege is showing until someone else makes it plain to you.

As a sociologist, I am very familiar with the concept of privilege, and I have not considered myself a “privileged person” in the past.  Many instructors use Peggy McIntosh’s work “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to illustrate the benefits of whiteness that go unnoticed. There are assumed and taken-for-granted beliefs and practices that are associated with privilege of all kinds including race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality, physical ability.

I am a black woman who grew up in a working class family that struggled to make ends meet.  I am very proud of my background, but I have never considered myself a person with privilege…until now.  Being in a developing country and connecting with people here has made me realize that my privilege is showing.  Here’s my list of privileges:

  • “American in the DR” – I have connections through the US Embassy and other organizations that validate my work because I am here as an American scholar at a prestigious American university.  
  • “American woman of a certain social class” – I was sitting at someone’s house in my field site chatting with a woman who was about my age, married, two kids.  She asked me “your husband is not mad that you’re here?”
  • “Not dark-skinned” – There are benefits and drawbacks to being a brown American and not a white American here.  However, being “lightish brown” also matters.  Research has shown that for people of color, there is a penalty for having darker skin (education, wages in the labor market, etc).  This happens in many countries in the world (U.S., India, Latin America). It’s called colorism.
  • Highly educated – On one level, I am literate. Reading and writing comes with its own privilege, but being a scholar is a different level.
  • Money – We still worry about debt and covering bills, but the money we have here has provided a car, an apartment with hot running water and electricity, and the luxury to not worry about how I will feed my kids each day.
  • Able-bodied – I don’t have to think about and plan for whether or not my body will do what I want it to do.
  • Sexuality – I introduced my husband and family to everyone at a couple of churches.  We fit into their schema of what a family looks like: husband, wife, kids. This helped with my community integration.
We move about in pretty homogenous spaces. This means that invisible privilege is likely to remain invisible.  Go somewhere different! Start small: neighborhood, grocery store, mall.  Call each other’s privilege out! Would you let someone walk around with their fly open?? Tell your loved ones when their privilege is showing.  It’s the right thing to do.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How to Drive and Survive in the Dominican Republic

We bought a used car to get around during our 10 months in the DR.  The car-buying process deserves its own post, but for this entry, I will attempt to explain to you the rules of the road – or as I like to call it: “How to Drive and Survive in the Dominican Republic”. (Disclaimer: We live in La Romana. Driving in the capital, Santo Domingo, is another beast.)  Data from this post come from my own driving experience and from an interview with my perceptive husband who was brave enough to learn the rules, recite them on every outing, then teach them to me.

Sociologists find that in places and situations that seem random and disorganized, there is often a system of order and mutually understood social norms that are not readily apparent to outsiders.  I have tried to apply this concept as I make sense of driving in the DR.  Here are the things we’ve observed thus far divided into “rules of the road” and “words of wisdom”.

Rules of the Road
1)      Green lights mean go. Unless the electricity is out. Then you just go whenever, easing out until someone has no choice but let you go. When in doubt, just go.  Unless you might cut someone off – then, don’t go.
2)      Red lights mean stop. Unless there are no cars coming in the other direction…and unless you’re on a motorcycle.  Motos create their own rules.
3)      Double yellow lines mean no passing.  Unless the person in front of you is slowing around.
4)      Blow your horn to let people know you’re there.  Unlike in the US where we beep when we’re angry or frustrated, in the DR, a beep means “hey, I’m passing on your left” or “don’t cross this intersection because I’m coming through” or “I see the light’s red, but there’s no one else coming, so GO!”  (Notably, some car horns sound like sirens or alarms and you might not recognize “wee-oo…pause…wee-oo wee-oo” as a car blowing at you, but it could be. Especially when it’s accompanied by flailing arms in your rear-view mirror.)
5)      At intersections, one street always has the right of way.  It’s usually the street without the speed dip. Figure this out quickly.
6)      One way streets are sometimes marked. Don’t try to use motos or parked cars to gauge whether the street is one way.  If someone is flailing their hands and shaking their head pointing in the other direction, you’re probably going down a one-way street.

Words of Wisdom
1)      Don’t daydream or get lost in thought.  Focus on driving and only driving – even if you see two clowns go by on a scooter.
2)      Be aware of all moving things: motorcycles, scooters, people, cars, dogs. They typically don’t move in predictable patterns.
3)      Look for speed bumps and speed dips – which are more like canyons. They will scrape your car…and make a really awful loud noise…causing onlookers to turn and cringe.
4)      Know where a couple of big streets go in case you get lost.
5)      Have car insurance. 
*Image credit: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Environment/Pix/columnists/2013/6/11/1370970125825/MDG--Road-Safety--busy-ro-009.jpg