Monday, March 19, 2018

Dear Future Preteen Daughter: Periods are More Than Just a Bunch of Blood

Dear future preteen daughter,

Let's talk periods.

Way back in the 1980s they divided up the girls and the boys of the fifth grade and sat those groups down to learn a little something about s-e-x. And when I say a little something, I mean a very little something. There was the usual video of the poor egg besieged by all those pesky sperm, talk of hair growing in places where there was no hair before, and if you were one of the girls, a quick menstruation primer plus a bulky mattress-like pad sample.

We learned the basics. Once a month, if we were healthy, blood (or something like it) would gush out of our vaginas - hence the pad - and that meant we were physically capable of getting pregnant. Yay? Sometimes, they told us, menstruating was a little uncomfortable and so you might want to have some Tylenol handy (ask your mom) along with your monster pads. And you might cry a little, too, but it's okay because you're a woman now!

Fast forward a few years. Most of us by 12 or 13 had gotten our periods and boy, were we mad! A little uncomfortable? Besides the fact that we were leaking blood from our nethers into what was essentially a diaper with its wings clipped, there were the deadly cramps and the outsized Queen Bitch mood swings that nobody warned us about.

For the former, screw the Tylenol, and grab three or four Ibuprofen along with a heating pad. And then you need to pray that you're not like some of my friends who grew up having cramps so bad they were nearly bedridden once a month. As for the other stuff, don't buy the line that PMS is just this slight inconvenience that we ladies can easily deal with (but milk for all it's worth because the poor menz don't know any better).

Fun fact: the mood changes that hit you like a ton of bricks before and during your period are no joke. At least that has been my world since I turned 12. Ask me about my history of epic freak outs. Better yet, ask my mom. Now here I am in my late 30s and I didn't create the coping strategies that actually worked for me until about 8 years ago. And jokes on me, they only work some of the time.

It took me so long to develop those strategies because first I had to figure out that the feelings I was drowning in were cyclical and not the result of me being totally mentally unhinged. And THAT took me so long to figure out because way back in the 1980s (and in the 90s and in the early 2000s, too) periods were mysterious blue liquid that didn't stop you from horseback riding on the beach. And talking about mental health? Was not actually a thing.

Maybe you'll get lucky, and you'll just feel a little off kilter every 28 days. But since genetics plays a big role in all of this, I'm going to say fat chance. Here are just some of the emotional symptoms you'll probably have to deal with until menopause:
  • Hyper rage that seems totally appropriate in the moment and awful when the moment's passed.
  • The intense nagging feeling that all your friends hate your guts.
  • The same intense nagging feeling, but this time it's that your SO doesn't love you.
  • Deep swells of sadness that make you think about suicide in a dreamy sort of way. 
  • Extreme highs and lows that make you alternately creative and directionless.
  • Hopelessness that makes it seem like your world will never be bright again.
  • A strong desire to smash things, Hulk style.
They didn't mention any of that in fifth grade. Maybe they didn't want to scare the shit out of us. Being a woman is clearly WEIRD and also GROSS, but when you're talking to a classroom full of wide-eyed nearly pubescent girls you are contractually obligated to say some bullshit about womanhood and femininity. Possibly because parents would sue if you told them that, hey, sometimes your vagina is gonna hurt and you're gonna have cramps so bad you literally barf. 

Now that you have an idea of what you're facing, the question is what to do about it. You can try popping Midol, raiding the chocolate, and watching sappy movies like the chicks on TV. Or you could just let it all out and hope for the best. These strategies probably work for some people and honestly, Midol rocks. Some people are able to use fake hormones to trick their bodies into not menstruating but after much experimentation I can say that I am not one of those people. If that turns out to be your experience, too, and those mild mood swings they told you were coming turn out to be frigging epic, here's what has worked for me.

Remember that feelings are all just stupid brain chemicals. Maybe you have a legit reason to be raging right now but before you go full on Hulk, take a tiny fraction of a second to ask yourself whether your hormones are playing tricks on you. Stop and think. Why would your friends keep hanging with you if they hate your guts? Will the thing currently crushing your soul still matter in 10 years? Will it still matter tomorrow?

Sadly, going full Vulcan will not make any of these special feelings associated with the blessing that is womanhood go away. But acknowledging that your feelings aren't necessarily reality can make it easier to phone a friend for support, channel your mood into creative pursuits, or say "I'm sorry about how I reacted - my brain chemicals are just all messed up right now" after you lose your shit.

In conclusion, periods suck ass. Welcome to the club.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Myth of the Bullied School Shooter (or Why Just Walking Up Won't Work)

Yesterday students in my town walked out of school as part of a National School Walkout. For a mere 17 minutes - one for each Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and staffer who was killed last month. The practical disruption of their protest was minimal. Many of the same students also went to State House in Boston for the WalkOut for Action and March for Our Lives rally and to meet with legislators.

Personally, I'm proud of these kids for participating in an eloquent, thoughtful, and well organized student-led movement. They didn't bag off school for the whole day, using fear as a flimsy excuse to go smoke up behind the bowling alley. They didn't get violent or commit acts of vandalism. What they did was protest peacefully for 17 minutes (before peacefully returning to school and resuming their classes) in the hope that their voices would be heard.

The responses from the community were... disappointing. Many people didn't seem to be aware of the fact that the student-led protest only lasted 17 minutes, and so accused the kids of simply wanting to skip school that day. Others wrote that the students were just agitators, wholly uninformed about the issues at hand. Plenty said that these students ought to be focusing on their education (as if taking part in the kind of political action that America was supposedly built on is not in itself educational). And lots of comments referenced schools, parents, and the media pushing a leftist agenda on students who are apparently, at least according to commenters, too stupid or too young to think for themselves. 

The worst responses were not the harsh critiques but rather the seemingly benign suggestion that high school students should not be protesting but rather befriending the friendless, doing 17 nice things for their peers, or "walking up not out". On the surface, it sounds like a wonderful idea - and when you divorce it from the WalkOut for Action / March for Our Lives movement it really is. Be kind. Connect with someone who is different. Support your teachers. Stand up for the bullied. We should all be doing those things.

But let's examine the idea that the responsibility for stopping school shooters rests, even partially, on the shoulders of our students.

If we take that seriously, then we have to ask ourselves with as much seriousness whether Sand Hook could have been prevented if only someone had asked Adam Lanza to lunch. Did Chris Harper-Mercer simply need a hug? If someone had just told Jaylen Fryberg he was looking good that morning, would Marysville Pilchuck High School have had four more graduating seniors? Do the people in my town truly believe that if folks had been kinder to Jeffrey Weise, Seung-Hui Cho, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the seeds of their violent impulses would not have had a chance to flower?

The narrative that school shooters are the bullied and not the bullies goes all the way back to Columbine, but most school shooters were not actually bullied. While some school shooters have indeed stated that their goal was to teach bullies a lesson, the data doesn't hold up. Most school shooters initially target school administrators or girls who rejected them, not peers who teased them. Half of high school shooters actually have a history of bullying others (that percentage goes up when you're looking at college-age shooters).

And most importantly, while a quarter of the more than 25 million middle and high school students in America will report having been on the receiving end of bullying, only a tiny handful of those students will ever commit an act of violence.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not the social outcasts the media made them out to be. Jeffrey Weise had numerous friends, including close friends who confided in him, and said himself that thanks to his size people who might have teased him actually left him alone. Seung-Hui Cho was probably bullied but at the same time was described by others as being menacing and having a mean streak. Cho also had a history of harassing female students. Jaylen Fryberg shot his friends first, working clockwise around the lunch table after asking some of them to skip class so they could all eat together.

Walking up would not have stopped those shooters. Smiling and saying hello would not have accomplished anything there. Looking at the biographies of the shooters, you'll see that even though these young people weren't part of the popular crowd, they nonetheless would have heard words of kindness from students and teachers. And clearly Jaylen Fryberg wouldn't have benefited from an invitation to lunch.

Mount Washington child psychologist Rebecca Wald wrote, "‘Walk Up, Not Out’ is a campaign of cowardice, promoted by adults who want there to be a solution to school shootings that asks literally nothing of us. No tough choices, no exercise of political will, no speaking out to power - just lecturing kids on how to do better.” And that's a problem. Personally, I will continue to work hard to help my children learn to be kind and to build others up instead of tearing them down, but I will not ever lie to them by suggesting that by doing so they might prevent a tragedy.

The people responsible for school shootings are school shooters, not the children staring down the barrel of a gun. If blaming the perpetrators isn't enough, then as adults let's accept some of the blame ourselves. If our children are so frightened they feel the need to mobilize to make their voices heard, the first step is to admit that we haven't been doing a very good job of protecting them. The next step? Is to listen to what they have to say.

We might actually learn something.

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