Why Does it Seem Like EVERYBODY Suddenly Has PTSD? Ten (Unscientific) Theories

Since “post-traumatic stress disorder” appeared in the DSM-III in in 1980, the concept of PTSD in the public imagination has grown from a novelty to an accepted reality to a comic hyperbole that can be used to mean “overreaction” or “lingering stress,”  as in “Ugh, that traffic jam gave me PTSD!”

PTSD is real, but its symptoms often look like plain old anxiety or depression or even Continue reading “Why Does it Seem Like EVERYBODY Suddenly Has PTSD? Ten (Unscientific) Theories”

Charm School for Feral Girls

One afternoon in the sixth grade, all the girls in my class were sent to the cafeteria for a special, one-time class whose topic was a secret. We’d already had the men-stroo-ation talk, so why the mystery?

The lunchroom chairs were arranged in rows. The teacher of the class was the mother of one of our classmates, who stood before us in a crisp yellow dress, hair teased and swept up like a movie star, with pink lipstick and white patent leather sandals. When we were all seated, she introduced herself and explained that the thing she was going to teach us this:

How To Behave Like Young Ladies. Continue reading “Charm School for Feral Girls”

Poor Girl’s First Real Job (Ten Things I Learned as an Admin Assistant)

When I was sixteen I interviewed for a job at McDonald’s and didn’t get it. Before that I’d worked as a phone solicitor and before that, a babysitter, yard worker, necklace stringer and flower-seller, and I raised and sold baby rabbits, and made nachos to sell at fairs.  When I was in college I worked selling pizza, painting houses, making sandwiches, assisting an elderly couple, being a photo double, selling ice cream, selling kites, selling my own blood and once (unwittingly) appearing as a clothed extra in an X-rated movie. After college, I worked as a temp in L.A. while doing comedy open mics at night, but struggled to maintain enough work to support myself. At the age of 23, in a burst of desire for a steady income, I talked my way into an Admin Assistant position in a hospital marketing department, with benefits and everything.

I really wanted to succeed in this job, but aside from being smart and funny and a fast typist, I had very little idea of what would actually earn my employer’s respect and get me promoted. Growing up poor, I had some wrong ideas about workplaces, bosses, and how to act. Gradually I had to figure it out. I’m still figuring it out, but here are ten things I learned:

  1. Attire-wise, “sexy” is not the same as “business-y.” Yes, high heels and dresses work with either look, and both are very beautiful, but different kinds of high heels send different messages. Same with different kinds of makeup, clothes and hair. You can’t help but be naturally sexy, but if you look like you’re trying to look sexy, it may appear to some at work that you are troubled, low-class, flirting, or manipulating. There is a time and a place for all this but not at work, not when you are trying to get ahead.
  2. While we’re talking about clothes, it should be noted that “money people” can wear clothes that express their personality, edginess and quirks, but if you grew up poor, you are burdened with a bit of a trust deficit in the workplace. So you may want to play it vanilla. A plain and sexless NPR kind of vanilla — in the first year, at least — without visible tattoos, piercings, unnatural hair coloring, studded belts, long or colorful nails, etc.
  3. If you are political or religious, don’t talk about it. If you are anti-political or anti-religious, don’t talk about that either, even if everyone else is talking about it. You can just nod vaguely and then smile brightly (to show you’re not judging) and lightly change the subject. Unless politics or religion is your job, the risks and pitfalls are way too high to risk your professional progress at this stage.
  4. At some jobs there are times when most of the team will have a drink together. It may not be a great idea for you to drink though. First of all, the trust deficit. You are already at a disadvantage for having grown up poor. And you may in fact have a cultural difference. In poverty culture, we have some room to talk about very personal things, get loud, cry and get angry, wherever we happen to be. Not so much in money culture. Also, if you grew up poor there’s a high likelihood that you grew up around alcoholism, and so other people drinking could be weird for you. I’d just say, if you’re trying to get somewhere professionally, you need all the wits about you that you can get. Order a non-alcoholic drink without calling attention to the fact you’re not drinking. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn about a company when everyone is drinking except you.
  5. If you were poor and this involved a crappy childhood, you are more at risk than money people for “rocky life events” — depression, broken relationships, financial trouble, anxiety, rage attacks and logistical mayhem  around home, family, moving, parenting, holidays, etc. If you have childhood PTSD these events will be even harder to avoid or contain. I really couldn’t tell you if poor people have more drama in their lives than money people, but I know there is more pressure on poor people to prove they are smart, trustworthy and emotionally stable. So get support from friends and professionals who can hear the horrible details and love you anyway. Then create a sturdy emotional “filter” that let’s you create mild, socially acceptable stories about what’s going in your life that you can tell at work with a little smile and virtually no details.
  6. Try never to gossip, even if other people are gossiping. This means not saying anything negative or disclosing personal information about a person not present. Even if it never gets back to the person you talked about, those who heard you will lose a little trust in you.
  7. If you resent your boss (and sometimes you will, especially if you grew up in poverty culture) you need to do everything in your power to get over it, or else change jobs. When I tell people this they think I’m too harsh, but think about it: Unless there is a problem with harassment, criminal activity or abuse, your job is to make your boss successful. If you do that, it is very probable you’ll rise. And trying to make your boss successful is generally the most direct path to learning about your job, your company and your industry. So your promotion will be earned.
  8. When your boss does not appreciate your contributions, or you think you could do better elsewhere, it is your job to recognize that and make it happen. This sounds really simple, but a lot of us leave that decision — without really being conscious of it — to others. And then we resent them for denying us the opportunities we deserve. You may agree with me on this: I, and I alone, am responsible for my advancement.
  9. Make a decision that your paycheck is a contract, and “own” your side of the contract. Don’t treat yourself as a victim, and don’t treat your employer as an adversary. You agreed to a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time, so if, on the job, you are chatting, checking your phone, browsing online, or not performing your job to the best of your ability, you are technically stealing from your employer. A lot of workplaces tolerate this behavior but you will know. These tiny “shame things” will keep you from holding your head up high, if only just a little, and cut short your confidence at critical moments. Set things right wherever you can. The absence of shame makes you stronger.
  10. Accept that as a person who grew up poor (and maybe with some crappy difficulties in your past) you may have some things that are awkward and struggly. Try not to let this set you against the world, or to use it as an excuse. Be kind, open-minded and courageous, and keep trying! Everyone is supposed to be different, and each person’s unique gifts are needed in this desperate world. When you aim to strengthen the goodness in yourself, your past experiences are transformed into a strength that can be shared. And that, right there, could just be your purpose.

Boyfriends Are Poison (and Other Tips for Girls Who Grew Up Poor)

Here’s what they tell you: Work hard in school. Love yourself. Get enough sleep. Say no to drugs and tobacco. Don’t consume sugary drinks. Use a condom. Don’t let yourself be pressured into sex. Accept your body. Get a career before you have children. Eat five fruits and vegetables a day. Breathe!  Don’t bully. Dream big.

Here’s what they don’t tell you: If you grew up poor, there is a much higher than average chance that you will have children outside of marriage, and this fact, more than any other, will push you toward the grubby end of income inequality — the widening gap between the poor and everyone else in the United States.

You’re not supposed to say this, but it’s true.  I  know. I grew up poor, and began my life as a mother without a committed relationship, let alone a marriage.

Compared to a lot of women who grew up like I did, I had advantages. I was in my late thirties when I had kids. I had a masters degree and made a decent living in a professional job. The kids’ father totally came through and cared for them half-time, and shared kid-related expenses. But my half of childcare was $1200 a month. Housing was $2600 a month. Healthcare was a whopping $2300 a month. Utilities, clothes, food, car, gas, insurance, toys, haircuts — you can do the math. Oh, and then the recession. There was no work for a year. Credit cards were my life raft. There were times I felt hopeless and desperate. This went on for a long time.

I love my kids a ridiculous amount. Being a mother is my core identity; I knew this when I was three years old. If I hadn’t followed my bumpy path, I wouldn’t have been blessed with these particular children, and therefore I wouldn’t change a thing. But I wish when I was younger someone had turned down the volume on all the sex-is-empowerment, a-woman-needs-a-man-like-a-fish-needs-a-bicycle, marriage-is-just-a-piece-of-paper crap and gotten real with me about the grave lifestyle trap of single motherhood.

Being a single mom isn’t just expensive, it turns out; it’s still really stigmatizing. You get judged.

Married couples are not always comfortable with a single woman hanging around. And the stay-at-home and part-time working mothers who are friends with each other because they are involved at your kid’s school will seldom think to invite you or your kid to playdates or parties.

It can fry your brain, raising kids without another adult in the house. I worked from home, and days would pass without contact with anyone older than a five-year-old. When I would finally get in the company of another adult, I’d blabber on and on, feeling suddenly alive and relieved of pent up thoughts, oblivious to nonverbal cues that my turn was over, it was time to let the other person talk.

With no one to share the stories, or to tell you things are going to be all right, the fear can really get you. Loneliness and money and medical worries can quickly escalate into a desperate panic. You get isolated. It’s easy to lose your temper. It’s hard to look nice. It’s hard not to turn out poor.

 

One night I was home alone watching the movie Hud, and during the scene where Paul Newman has to shoot the entire herd of cattle, I began to cry the hardest I’ve every cried in my life. First it was the movie, and then it was everything in the whole world. A lot of stuff kept going wrong in my life, mostly to do with men, and I was sick of it.

I had always expected I would get married and have kids, but the right guy had not come along. I’d had plenty of boyfriends, one after another, but nothing could really hold. I was attracted to the wrong people, and ended up hurt. I was too afraid of being alone, and lacked patience. I kept finding myself bonded with guys I didn’t actually like, or who didn’t like me. Some of this was normal youth stuff, but I wasn’t young anymore.

I had no idea what I was doing wrong or what to do, but here, crying alone on a kid-stained Ikea sofa in front of the TV on a Saturday night, I had had enough. I became willing, without any reservation, to do absolutely anything necessary to change. Here’s what happened.

  • I wrote my inventory. Lots of it. I prayed each morning for the clarity to see the reality of my situation and to take action.
  • I ended all association with men in which one of us was interested in the other. I’d long had a habit of keeping guys around who were interested, but whom I knew I’d never date. A friend of mine confronted me about it, and called such men my “lab rats”. I stopped being anyone else’s lab rat. Making the phone calls to end these friendships was awkward and painful, but liberating. I became emotionally available.
  • I made an extra effort to dress nicely more of the time, to be on time, to be a better listener.
  • I made a decision that I wanted to get married. For me, the purpose of dating was not to fill up my present life, but to see if this was someone I wanted to marry.
  • So that I wouldn’t waffle, I wrote down a list of characteristics that were “musts”:  No drug or alcohol problems. No entanglements with other women. No conflicts whatsoever about being a loving, committed, giving husband and stepfather to my kids.

Then I made a list of desirable characteristics:

  • I wanted someone with a professional job, age within five years of my own, no debt, loving family of origin, plays guitar (so I can sing along, loves to came, and feels lucky be with me.
  • I decided casual sex was not for me. Avoiding this solved two things: Never again would I have an accidental pregnancy, and never again would I find myself emotionally bonded with (or ripped apart by) someone who was not committed to me. This is easier said than done, but was the single most powerful change.
  • I decided I was willing to be alone the rest of my life, if necessary. I would take life as it comes.
  • I relinquished efforts to “make” a relationship happen. I decided to let it come to me.

Within a month or two, a funny thing happened. I started to get asked out by perfectly nice men. I went on some dates. The dates were OK. There were one or two second dates, and nothing happened. I got some practice at getting to know people. My life got nicer, more stable. I slept well. The kids were thriving. Work was going well.

Somewhere in there,  I met the man I ended up marrying. I felt very strongly about him right away, but it went slowly. It took over a year before we were earnestly dating. It took three years to get engaged and five years to get married. If I had known, magically, how to date like this when I was younger, it would have saved a hell of a lot of heartache. It would have liberated so much creative and constructive energy in every part of my life and (yes, I would have liked this) I could have had more kids.

Better late than never. And since you ask, yes — my husband very closely fits the qualities on the list I made (though he announced recently that he doesn’t like camping anymore).

OK so I know, I KNOW that some people think what I did to change is bullshit, archaic, sex-negative. Maybe you don’t need such a rigorous structure for dating — maybe you don’t have the wreckage of a crappy childhood that makes all close relationships fraught and slippery, or maybe you have more tolerance for ambiguity, solitude and partings than I do. Seriously, you are lucky, and I wish you every happiness.

For me though, the comfort and safety of being a two-parent family — even on the bad days — is like a scaffold, a well, a launching pad for all the good inside of us to come forth. May everyone have it so good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Trauma From Your Childhood ACTUALLY Making You Sick?

OK, I have to start with a story.

When I was nine years old my mom remarried and we moved 900 miles away from my hometown, Berkeley — away from my friends, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and (heartbreakingly) my father, who loved the hell out of me and my younger sister. He had fought my mother at every stage of her leaving — the separations, the divorce, the one-sided custody deal, her remarriage, and her decision to move with us kids to Tucson, Arizona where her new husband would begin a Ph.D program at the university. Continue reading “Is Trauma From Your Childhood ACTUALLY Making You Sick?”

Growing Up “Hippie Poor” vs. Hillbilly Poor

I just finished J.D. Vance’s excellent Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, a book that’s part sociological analysis about poor white Americans, and part memoir about growing up with a drug-addicted mother and all the crappy crap that goes with that. I come from the opposite corner of the socioeconomic spectrum (well, the “socio” part of the poor spectrum).Vance was Hillbilly Poor and I was Hippie Poor, but my experience was about 90% the same as his.

When media types talk about “poor white people”, they don’t usually mean the kind that we were — the kind with college educated parents and brown-bread sandwiches and an Ecology flag on the front door. But we were chronically poor — like not-enough-food-poor — starting when my mother first walked out on my dad, bought a VW bus and turned our family home into a commune. I was seven at the time.

People who weren’t in Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s often have sugar-coated idea of what was happening then. When I tell new friends the commune story, their first reaction is to find it charming, projecting (I think) women gathering eggs from the yard together, or children learning woodworking by the fire.

But it was more like this: Six people moved in with my mom and her three kids, and there was a lot of partying — weed, LSD, booze (mostly booze) and a progressive destruction of order, modesty and safety.

There were some good aspects: One of the women taught us kids to macrame and to make dip candles, and she once let me sit in the light booth at an avant garde theater, where she worked. But sometimes we’d come home from school and the people who shared our home were tripping on acid, or having sex on the living room floor, or smashing dishes.

The grownups seemed to have abandoned any sense of responsibility. One day one of the women, a single mother who liked to walk around the house naked, encouraged my older brother to take 13 hits of acid (he was 15 at the time) and then physically attacked him because she felt he was “looking at her” too much.

My kid memories are choppy. The house became filthy I remember, and people vomited a lot. My teeth ached with cavities, and I had a permanent little pillow of snarled hair (a “rats’ nest” my mother said) pushing out from the back of my head.  I experimented to see how many days in a row I could wear my favorite outfit, day and night, without ever taking it off: Seventeen!

There were parties, and  strangers came and sat cross legged on our living room carpet. Sometimes there was a big pot of soup on the stove. Sometimes there was nothing but a few rotten vegetables, or some pot brownies hidden on the top shelf (and we kids ate ALL of them, despite the little twigs in them, because it we were hungry). Sometimes all the adults would just disappear for a while, with no word of where they’d gone or when they’d come back.  I remember my older brother and me living off Easter candy for three days, and finally getting food from the neighbors up the street. My 3rd grade teacher quietly agreed to let me bring my toddler sister to school with me, all day, as needed. We lived in fear that the cops would be alerted and they’d throw us into foster care. Luckily (I guess) no one ever intervened.

Hippie poverty gets a bit of cache from the principled poverty of people who actually fight injustice and senseless materialism.  Our poverty looked like that, but wasn’t that.  Ours was unfocused and self-inflicted, caused by self-centeredness and plain old alcoholism. That’s why we were poor. There was no historic disadvantage, social oppression or racism at work, and therefore no special outreach or programs or organizations there to help. My parents were highly educated, raised by loving parents, and theoretically capable of earning more than a middle class living. My grandfather had been a controller for Exxon, for heaven’s sake, but my mother was on and off of food stamps. We spoke like people with money, but my siblings and I did not fit in with that type at school.  We identified as, and with, poor kids. That’s what we knew. It became our culture.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance talks about the role his grandmother and a few other adults played in stabilizing his life and providing structure and encouragement to eventually join the Marines, then go to college, then law school, then to marry and begin a career. I too had a loving grandmother, and later, a stepfather who brought some stability to our family and pointed the way toward a path of normalcy. There were some key friends who helped me change my culture, and get back on the path of constructive living from which my mother had long before strayed.  Though our family continued to be poor, there was kindness, food to eat and daily supervision of our comings and goings. It is not an exaggeration to say that, had these supportive people not been in my life, I might not be alive today. I would certainly not be among the resilient ones.

There is a hilarious Facebook group, btw, of which I’m a member, called Your Mom Is So Berkeley. We grown-up, hippie-poor kids are starting to find each other.

At the end of his book, JD Vance (this is so awesome) talks about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, and how he became aware of the ways traumatic events of his childhood affected him as an adult, especially in his relationship with his wife. He is able to tell this difficult story honestly, humbly and without self-pity, and also to describe the steps he took to separate from the negative aspects of hillbilly culture and to honor and maintain what was good. Today he lives his life among a mix of people, including old some who are wealthy and powerful. He has used recent research about childhood trauma to learn and strengthen himself, and to be an example for us all. Here is a portrait. Read the book!JD Vance.png

 

 

Ten Tips For Staying Sane (This Time) When Family Visits Make You Crazy

Yay! The holidays are here and crappy childhood people everywhere are facing the prospect of returning home.

Let’s say you’ve escaped your crappy childhood and you’re living happy and free as a grown-up. You get an e-mail. It’s your mother. She wants to know if you are coming home for Thanksgiving and you say yes, of course, and you jump right online and book a $400 plane ticket. And then. The remorse. Sets in… Continue reading “Ten Tips For Staying Sane (This Time) When Family Visits Make You Crazy”