Mental health/illness and cultural context – Thoughts on the UCSB massacre, part one


I am a marriage and family therapist.  The thing that distinguishes MFT training from the other mental health professions – professional/mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists – is our intense clinical training in systems and theoretical training in general systems theory.  You see, in my training, I learned to recognize that what counts as mental health or mental illness varies based on context.  Different cultures, different value systems, all place differing emphases on what constitutes mental health versus mental illness.  This matters in the context of the Elliot Rodger killings because of the brief conversations about mental health that have arisen – and generally quickly quashed – since last week. 


We, as a society, are having a really difficult time figuring out how to have a conversation about mental health, especially as it applies to horrific crimes such as this one.  But I hope I can illuminate throughout this posting why this is not a surprise given  our cultural context.  Through my observation over the past few days of the media – both in print and radio – coverage of this terrible case, it has become obvious that we don’t have, as a nation, a language or understanding to inform a conversation of this kind.  The back and forth has been astonishing – yes, mental illness matters; no, mental illness isn’t the issue; it’s white patriarchal rape culture to blame; misogyny doesn’t matter, mental illness is to blame.  But in the end, the conversation hasn’t really happened at all outside of a few blurts and sound bites here and there.  In fact, the majority of the conversation around mental illness in the Elliot Rodger case has been – he was seeing mental health professionals; why didn’t someone catch this.  The long and the short of it is, the mental health professionals did their jobs – they called authorities and notified them that something was wrong.  Multiple times.  But law enforcement – the people whose job it is to actually detain dangerous people – laughed Rodger off as a good guy.  Before calling his a sociopath a few days later.


So here comes the part where we talk about the link between white patriarchal rape culture and mental health.  And why it’s so uncomfortable for us to have a conversation around mental health and mass murder in this country.  You see, before a few brave women changed the conversation, the initial media response to Elliot Rodger was exactly in line with this white patriarchal rape culture value system.  Initial coverage focused on how unfortunate the plight of this poor, loveless man must be rather than the objectification of the women he suffered.  As the perspective of Rodger’s actions changed over the next 24 hours, so did the story about mental illness and it’s role in the shootings.  All of a sudden, this man’s actions were no longer understandable or pitiable or misunderstood – they were deplorable, sociopathic, terrible.  Even the police who came to Elliot’s door and saw his youtube videos professing his hatred and his plan for “revenge” against women who’d committed the crime of existing walked away feeling like he was a perfectly wonderful human being.  That’s because the sociopathy of this man fell under the normally accepted male privilege and entitlement held of value in this country.  So any conversation around mental health must involve a conversation around our values as a society – and this is not something we seem prepared to do. 


When the conversations around this series of events has been either/or – a cultural divide of simply mental health OR simply misogyny – we’re missing the picture.  You see, this is a both/and – our cultural acceptance of misogynistic male privilege under very strict ideals of what constitutes masculinity – informs our beliefs about and response to mental health crises.  Poorly trained law enforcement officers viewed Rodger’s misogyny as normal and healthy, despite concerns from his family and mental health professionals that he was on the verge of doing precisely what he did.  A society which reinforces, even just in parts, the ideals that Rodger held to be true must be in some ways culpable of the crimes committed by someone taking this idea to its logical conclusion. 


It’s a shame that we seem unwilling and unprepared to have this conversation about the interaction of mental health and our own cultural values.  It could have saved seven lives.


When you listen differently –


I have a confession. I love weird music. Well, I think it’s beautiful 🙂 but I’ve heard it’s weird. This is one of those artists I adore. Joanna Newsome writes these little packets of profundity, and I love her oddish voice and the harp. For some reason, her music touches my heart in a happy way, resettles me and centers me emotionally. So, when I found myself singing along with her album “Milk-eyed Mender,” I sputtered along with some words that took on an entirely new meaning….

“…And you do lose what you don’t hold…”

I’ve always held that little line to be a notion of holding on to those things you don’t wish to lose – in fact, to get personal, I’d always stuck to that line as one my partnerish should have heard – a line to help him see, you need to hold me – to really want me – in order not to lose me, dammit!

But when I heard it this time, on my way home from the news that my mother’s cancer had returned, it struck me that perhaps we can take this line from the Buddhist perspective – that, in fact, if we simply let go of the suffering and the hate and the sorrow, that it will leave us. It made me smile as I thought this during my drive – so much so that I returned the track to the beginning and listened three more times, listening for loss and the strength to let go.

Personal growth


The past couple of weeks have been very intense for a variety of reasons.  But, it has been a refreshing time, too; full of renewed hope and promise of something better – not through something new, per se (though I hope newness happens, too) – but rather by looking back and returning to things that fulfilled me as a younger person.  A return to an internal home space – that comfortable place where freedom and creativity rule and where doubt and hesitation are overruled by the intense drive to try it anyway and see what happens.


It’s difficult, as we get older, not to let life get in the way of fulfillment.  You have to be an adult, and that means paying bills and finding a career path and feeding your cats and looking for a partner and everything else.  And furthermore, we equate these things – both missing and found – with that fulfillment.  A new car will make me happy.  A partner will make me happy.  This job with money should make me happy.  But why?  Yes, living is a necessity – it’s quite necessary to pay bills and to have a job that allows that… But why lose the sense of wonder that goes with a life directed towards promise while doing those things.  I haven’t had that for many years – I’ve felt lost and I’ve floundered about trying to make others happy and failing myself at the same time.  I don’t regret the things I’ve done – in fact, I know that my path to this point has taught me many lessons, and I’ve certainly grown a whole awful lot as a human being through this journey.  I have the thinking, questioning, writing and logic skills learned from philosophy.  I have the people, applied, listening and attention skills acquired through training as a therapist.  And turning back to the fields I loved as a child – music, reading, writing and art – has reminded me that I have these skills, though neglected for quite some time, that help me to see the world and the people in it with wonder and newness.  And because of that academic training, I have new language and understanding through which to express that wonder.


I have been writing as I haven’t written in years.  I’ve challenged myself to get back into poetry and fiction, when I’ve been writing research and term papers for the past decade.  And it has made me happy.  It has given me a voice and a channel of expression and clarity.  It has reminded me that processing an event may be more important than the event itself – and that I have a choice what kind of meaning I give the life that comes at me.


Though the past weeks have been a real challenge, I believe that great things lie ahead.  Whatever it might be, I will ride it out and learn and be in the world through this next new lens – but I will not again forget to live in wonder.  That, after all, might just be what keeps misery at bay. 

10 years, 8 months.


The first time, it was a relief. A long awaited validation of the suspicions well-fought and pressed on for months to doctors who wouldn’t listen. When they finally found it, finally gave it a name, cancer, it felt like a weight lifted. Now they know what it is, they can take it out, can DO something. The second time, 10 years and 8 months later, to the day, she said it knocked the wind out of her. In the neurologist’s office to gather results on the hip and back pain she’d been having for over a year, expecting an uncomfortable cortisol shot, the doctor blurted out, “your spine is full of tumors.”


“Mine?” It came out before she could process – as if he could be talking to anyone else. The first time, she said, that her pains and aches hadn’t sent her mind racing immediately there – and here it was, her body turned against itself once again.


­           ­           ­*          *          *


The first time, it had caught me off guard. I was in my first semester at a smallish south Georgia university, about an hour and a half from home. My car had stayed at my parent’s house when I left, the victim of campus living and parental ambivalence around the first child’s launching. I got a phone call and mom calmly told me the diagnosis and that she thought she was going to be ok. I don’t remember much. I offered to drop out and move home; my quick response shoved quickly aside, “no, don’t change anything.” I remember sitting by the lake in the middle of campus, watching the water – watching the people and world which were seemingly unchanged – how could this be so when my entire world had shrunk in upon itself. I remember thinking, how could I possibly function without my mother.  


Over the next ten years and 8 months, mom recovered out of sight, with occasional drops in. A tumultuous process of surgeries, removals of many different pieces, reconstruction which involved processes which have made the past ten years occasionally unbearable, chemical injections making life temporarily and immediately miserable and, eventually – quickly even – a new prognosis – cancer free. The first few years were full of suspicion and waiting. When would it come back? All of us staying positive to avoid the thoughts of what we had narrowly avoided. But, slowly, our relationships moved forward and we learned to live without cancer – to love and laugh and fight and cry and celebrate together again, about the mundane and ordinary. No longer living our lives as though one of us were defeat-able at any moment.


­           ­           ­*          *          *


This time, though, is thus far a practice in not-knowing. What will come next? What IS it? What are the treatment options, or are there any? The losses seem much more concrete – what will it be like for my mother not be at my wedding someday? To not have her know and love my future partner? What if I have a child who will never know her grandmother? What will it be like for my mother never to witness the successes I haven’t yet had?


For now, I’m grateful for our ten years and eight months since the first diagnosis. I’m grateful for the time we have now. I’m grateful for the woman I call mother.

Charlie Day at Merrimack


It’s that time of year – Graduation! When things start over, are scary and exciting all at the same time, for so many people. I have been there three times now (well, four if you count high school, I suppose), and I remember feeling each time like Charlie describes here: trepidation mixed with the open possibilities of an ending leading to a new beginning.

I generally hate commencement speeches – they only remind me of how much I haven’t done, how much I haven’t succeeded (yet) and how far I still have to go. They remind me that my passion is perhaps a bit untamed – there are too many directions that I love and am good at, so much so that I get stuck in the ordinary.

But Charlie. Charlie, charlie, charlie. I listened to this speech, and as I did, I made a decision. One I’ve been obsessing over, but have been too fearful to make. Hopefully I find a place which allows me to flourish and to reclaim my creative self – to reclaim an exploration of my passions. For years now – since 2010 after I finished my first master’s – I have been feeling stuck and unfulfilled.

Now is my opportunity to get unstuck. Thanks, Charlie 🙂 I appreciate the motivation.



This week, Sexstress Extraordinaire Pamala Anderson shattered the silence and publicly shared her sexual abuse history. This was a brave, courageous and significant thing to do, and I applaud her. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be, especially as someone who has literally sold her body, to come forward and announce to the world that she has been molested, raped, gang raped – and furthermore that she founding meaning for her Self through the world around her – through nature. There are many outlets covering the details (I caught it here) so I won’t go into the details of the report itself; however, I have some thoughts about this discussion that I think are important.


When I first stumbled upon this news, I was thinking about the prevalence of childhood sexual assault and future involvement in the sex industry.  But then I found this.  And it made me wonder.  Now, this article is not terrible, and I believe the author has some good points. For one, she points out the disturbing trend in this country of our unjust system of refusing to punish heterosexual men for raping women – seemingly no matter their age or their circumstances – and the equally distressing trend of victim-blaming in our courts of law around rape charges. And while I have thoughts on this, as well, that’s not what really drew my focus about with this article. You see, I think Marcotte, though she has her heart most certainly in the right place, misses the bigger picture.


In her article, Marcotte states:

“Just as important, by speaking out about her childhood experiences and framing herself as a survivor—one who is unafraid to be sexual—Anderson can signal to other survivors that they can heal and move on. “l live a sensual life,” she said….Many victims of sexual assault feel as if they’ll never be allowed to be “sensual” again.”

I’m sure that this, to some extent, for some victims, is true. However, I think the entirety of the ‘story’ is greater than this. I appreciate Marcotte’s stance that being an openly sexual survivor of sexual assault is a brave position; however, I would also challenge her perceptions that

“But many victims have another struggle, believing they aren’t allowed to embrace their sexuality and told that if they continue to enjoy sex after an assault, they are “acting out” or somehow committing self-harm.”


I work every day with men and women who are survivors of sexual assault – some of them survivors of trauma beyond your worst nightmares – and they tend to have one thing in common: they use their sexuality as a mask of protection. Is sex work, then, or even just “sexual acting out,” as Marcotte suggests it’s labeled, an empowering way to process and deal with one’s trauma, or is it a way of protecting one’s self by shielding the inside with the body in order to stick with what’s worked – retraumatizing these men and women to keep them in the comfort of what they know?


There has been a whole lot of research in the past few decades around sex work – much of it challenging perceptions, which is a good thing. There are also really great advocacy groups who do really amazing research on the hidden abundance of sexual abuse and exploitation of children. The truth of the matter is that most people who have been sexually assaulted don’t report, and the numbers that we do get back from very specific questionnaires (again, knowing that not everyone is reporting) are showing that about one in three women and one in four or five men has been sexually assaulted at some point – and these statistics are only about the very “forced” rape categories – penetration – and don’t include violations like touching, groping, fondling, being forced or coerced into touching, groping or fondling, or visual exposure. The sheer numbers are incredible. And we know that the nature of sexual assault is itself very secretive and shameful.


There have been studies recently debunking the assertion that most sex workers are themselves victims of childhood sexual assault. And perhaps the demographic really is changing; however, knowing that these studies rely heavily on self-report and that these (predominantly) women don’t trust anyone, these studies have a difficult time of being held as statistically and methodically legitimate in the world of statistical veracity. Yet, they report their results as truth.


Without insinuating that this correlation is either causal or bidirectional (that is to say, I don’t mean to imply that sexual assault CAUSES one to go into sex work, or that the seeming correlation between selling one’s sexual self and having been sexually assaulted as a child is reversible and that all sexual assault victims end up labeling themselves with their sexuality), I would assert that I see this trend in my clients on a daily basis. They struggle with their sexuality and with what it means to own their sexuality by using their sexuality as a weapon which generally works against them. But perhaps those among us who have not experienced sexual assault struggle with this question of owning our sexuality, as well.


I waver back and forth on this issue, and I have certainly seen a development in my ideas of what feminism and female empowerment mean, versus the patriarchal objectification of the female body. For instance, does it matter if a woman is in control of her decision to perform sex work as an autonomous and deliberate action if that work is being used to make male producers/pimps/CEOs money by selling her body to other men in order to get off? Where is the power in this situation? Does the female worker have the power, or is it the men? If it’s the men, is it all of them, or is it one side more than the other? These are important and meaningful questions, and they deserve public discourse, especially in a society so hell-bent on blaming victims of sexual assault when they are girls/women and overlooking it completely when they are boys.


For Pamela Anderson, this situation is personal and relevant. She made decisions to sell her body, and furthermore to brand herself as sexual and as someone who was proud of this and who’s decision was wholly within her control and made with autonomy. When you look at systems – the way our circumstances overlap with our decisions and actions, and vice versa – it becomes increasingly difficult to state that our decisions are made in a vacuum of autonomy and personal power. I don’t know how, or even if, this applies to Ms. Anderson, but I am grateful that she came out and broke the silence. I do agree with Ms. Marcotte that her coming forward gives yet another voice to the light and sheds more of the darkness and secrecy around sexual assault.

Consequences and ambivalence – an odyssey in mindfulness


As I stood in the shower, washing my face, I began to consider consequences. The consequences of our decisions and of our actions – the good and the bad consequences, the tough and the sad and the triumphant consequences. And how we so often forget about the larger consequences – the societal, communal and relational consequences – of our actions.

I began to consider the decisions that our leaders make. The decisions that our lawmakers and principles and school boards and teachers make. Decisions and actions informed, generally, wholly by personal feelings, experiences and consequences. We all seem to approach our lives in terms of what is best for me – and sometimes that is a really important and necessary approach to take! But so often, we forget that our decision impact the people around us, the society around us – the world around us. I get so frustrated when our country’s leaders make decisions based on what a vote will buy him or her, despite the consequences on the people of the country. Or when a principle suspends a kid for 13 days out of school for standing up for themselves when they’re getting bullies, giving this kid no chance of catching up, so she skips and then gets suspended again for skipping, falling even further behind.

In our country, it appears that we forget that our action impacts the actions and behaviors of other people around us. We blame the poor for their poverty and ‘gaming the system’ when we set them up to do just that, just to get basic necessities – the greatest of which is enjoyment – met. We forget that our choices – where we spend our money, who we vote for, what we put in our bodies – impact the entirety of our known reality.

Back in the shower, I realized that this face wash – this face wash that I love and adore – is endangering our oceanic environment through the poisoning of sea life consuming the plastic microbeads that scrub my skin so clean. If someone else had told me this, my answer would have been unequivocal – GIVE THAT SHIT UP! Why on Earth would you continue using a product which is harming our earth. But this face wash, this scrubby creamy delightful cleansing product, is the only one I’ve found in years that I like using and that makes my skin feel really clean! This moment of selfishness – utter and hateful and destructive selfishness – caught me completely off guard and got me thinking about bigger things.

If this wasn’t just your face – if it was your house and car and kids’ school and yachts and POWER – how much larger might my ambivalence be? How is it that I can be horrified at people who throw cigarette butts and other trash on the beaches or in the streets or otherwise littering, but that I find myself minimizing the impact of my decision thus far not to give up my face wash which I know is doing harm.