HerStories: the Book, the Launch Day, the Dream

Ever since I read about how Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women (I’m guessing I was eight or nine), I have known that one day, I would be a published author. It may be on page 212 of a (FANTASTIC) collection of essays by many other authors, but Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March gets HER first story published in a magazine (or is it a newspaper?). I’m doing much better, if we account for the company I’m keeping, here. Seriously–these women are amazing. I’ve been on the verge of happy tears since I got my copy of the book, today. Look at her. She’s beautiful!

In person, she’s all shiny and gorgeous. And my NAME is in there! It’s in the table of contents of a REAL BOOK. Library of congress, people! It’s on the page my essay is in. Page 212. Happy Launch Day to everyone, especially my wonderful fellow contributors and MOST especially to Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger. The HerStories Project is so important. It’s no accident that I feel like Jo March and a strong link to Louisa May Alcott, LM Montgomery and Jane Austen, my first favorite female authors. Without books about female friendship, I would never have loved reading so much, nor would I have aspired to write. Did I mention that I FEEL LIKE JO MARCH? Because that is an awesome feeling. All the people in your life need this book, dear readers.

 

If you are still reading this, I will tell you that IF you cannot afford $10 on a book, even a super special awesome book that probably has super special super powers, today, Launch Day, you may download it for free in Kindle format. But please only do that if you must. We’ve all worked really hard on this, and it would be pretty great if the women who worked hardest, Jessica and Stephanie, actually earn a dollar or two. This is self-published, and it’s a beautiful a book as any in my collection, so that is what I call impressive.

I Blame Jet Lag; Plus, a Rant on Happy Endings

A gold standard.

I failed at posting every day this month; on Monday, I flew home from my weekend in Los Angeles with my sister and her beautiful family. Even accounting for the time difference, it took me twelve hours to get home, and I had a migraine for most of those hours. I went to sleep without even thinking about the blog. I then slept for lots of Tuesday and almost all of Wednesday, and only now do I finally feel like myself again. I don’t even know how long I slept last night. So, for those of you who have so sweetly expressed worry, and those of you who have not actually expressed worry but have wondered: I am fine.

In fact, I am blissfully happy. And here’s why:

I got my dream job. I am officially a part-time Support Infant/Toddler Teacher at a childcare center with a values-based, child-centered curriculum and two itty bitty new friends coming to join them in December. With two new infants coming, they needed some more hands, and that’s me! I’ve been training there, when I haven’t been working at my babysitting job (which, by the way, is also a great job with awesome kids and which I did not have to quit to take this one!) or sleeping.

Or finish the Twilight series. About which I could add very little to this brilliant article that my Nathan found for me called Our Bella, Ourselves. Before you click that link, though: spoiler alert. You’ve been warned. If you haven’t read the last book, save yourself one of the few possible surprises by not reading the article until you have. And you can have my copy, by the way. Of any of the books. Send your address and the entire series is yours for the cost of postage. Which brings me to one thing that I will add about why I will not be reading these books a second time and to one thing that I was actually surprised the professor of English lit who wrote that ingenious article didn’t mention: the ending does. not. work. And here is my response to a disturbing literary trend.

Dear Writers of Fiction, Particularly the “Supernatural” or “Fantasy” “Young Adult” variety,

For a long time, the best writers of fiction and, at times, popular music, have respected a simple rule: You can’t always get what you want. Someone has to give up something. The higher the stakes, the bigger the sacrifice. And no, mortality doesn’t count. And no, one year spent in misery doesn’t count. Not when you blithely offer us an eternity of perfect happiness with almost no threat on the horizon at the end of your “saga.” Stephenie Meyer, I am talking to you, obviously. I don’t know if this is some sort of allegory for a religious life-style in which eternity with one’s perfect family intact is indeed the prize, but if so, here’s some more news: allegories make for crappy fiction. Ever tried to read Pilgrim’s Progress? Yawn. J.K. Rowling, I am talking to you, too: I know that Harry lost a lot over the years, but you cannot just give him a perfect family standing on a train platform reliving and perfecting his childhood and call it The End. Everything tied up with a nice, neat bow. It makes for a less than memorable experience. In other words, while you may have succeeded with a few of your books, your series will fail to make my list of all-time favorites, because the endings, honestly, make me feel like I just ate way too much candy.

For any skeptics out there, I offer you two several prime examples: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and the more modern Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. First things first, Little Women (if these are spoilers, then you live under a rock and I offer no apologies–even Friends, yes, the sitcom, covered this): Beth dies, and Jo does not end up with her teenage companion Laurie. In other words, the perfect little family is shattered, and nothing can ever put it back together again. If your can read Little Women without crying during Beth’s last scenes, you have no heart. The tears I shed over the sweet (and yes, sometimes annoyingly perfect) littlest sister, Beth, remain one of my fondest childhood literary memories. I still cry when I watch one of the movie versions at Christmas; on a separate note, my very first crush *ever* was the young Christian Bale playing Laurie because he is perfect and perfectly beautiful. Here’s the point: I love the way the family repairs itself around Beth’s absence without ever forgetting her. It is real and raw. It is unexpected, even. If anyone, the father off fighting in the Civil War should die, right? And Beth survives one life-threatening illness. Shouldn’t she be safe? It’s a literary choice with a purpose. She doesn’t use Fate as an excuse. Rowling–you do a good job with this re: the death of Sirius Black. Meyer–you fail. Everyone? Really? Everyone gets to be happy? You could have at least killed off her dad! Give us something to show that this world is actually a dangerous place! Just saying it over and over does not quite do the trick. But here’s where Little Women crushes every competitor: Jo chooses a safer, simpler life when her heart takes her away from the boy fate seems to have provided for her. She grows up. She stops writing Gothic thrillers (perhaps another lesson for Ms. Meyer?) and starts writing about her family. Her marriage is not the big event. Her choice to stay, take over her Aunt’s giant mansion and turn it into a school? That is the event that solidifies Jo’s coming of age.

Now, did you know that there are sequels to Little Women? There are. They are nice, if you absolutely love Little Women, the way I do. But do you know why they are not marketed as The Jo March Saga? Well, they are just too darn happy, and there’s very little tension to keep anyone reading. Good Wives, Little Men. They just doesn’t have the same appeal as Jo’s coming-of-age story. Why does this matter? Because each book is its own book. Beginning, middle, END. Rowling and Meyer, do you hear me? Books are supposed to END! They are not supposed to hang off cliffs, preparing us all for the next one in the series! We’re supposed to keep reading because we are in love with your books, not because you have manipulated us into needing to find out what turn your stupid plot takes! (In case I sound harsh, I want to state I love most of Harry Potter, and will read them to my kids.) If you are going to write a novel, please write an ending. You can still have a sequel (or three, or six), it just takes a bit more skill to keep us reading.

I will spend less time on Bridge to Terabithia, because I don’t expect everyone to have read it. It does not have sequels, and I can’t imagine anything following it up. The “supernatural” is breathtaking in this story, and Patterson (a great writer), takes the time to show us how it parallels real life without hitting us over the head with stupid analogies. (I am still mad Meyer explains each of titles and what they mean as if it weren’t glaringly obvious and as if her readers were too stupid to figure it out and as if it didn’t feel totally out of place in the dialogue.) It’s the story of an unlikely friendship (with extra points for the inter-gender friendship), and I love its utter respect for young inner lives. Young adult fiction writers everywhere: read it and take notes. THIS is how you write all the ecstasy and heartbreak of being young. You show us that it changes who we are. Forever. With all the earnest respect I initially liked about Twilight and none of the spoon-fed sickly sweet stuff meant to help us swallow the “medicine” of perfectly ordinary life events. Perfectly ordinary does not necessitate any less emotion. Adults love Bridge to Terabithia, and I will be so excited to share it with my child when he or she is old enough. I could cry over it a hundred times, and I would still want to read it again. Because it is real.

Love,

Reader and Informal Literary Critic

Anne-Marie

PS I am watching you. You can do better. Step up your game.

Twilight? Actually, I Get It

I put off reading the Twilight series for a long time. If it had gone away instead of seeping into American culture, I probably would have skipped it. I’m not above reading uber-popular pop fiction, I just happen to prefer magic and dragons to vampires and werewolves. I read the first Sookie Stackhouse book because I like True Blood, but it turns out I like watching the attractive actors on HBO more than I care about the story. I honestly just don’t care about Sookie on the page. But Anna Paquin? I find Anna Paquin completely fascinating. So, there’s your proof that I do not consider myself above vampires. Books about other kinds of magic just tend to be more complicated–an author usually has to explain how this magic works, how it’s used, who gets to use it, etc. But with vampires, what’s to explain? Not alive but not dead. Drink blood. Mostly bad, a couple good ones. Etc. Not since Buffy has a vampire held my attention, and I have yet to hear anyone claim that Twilight is well-written enough to merit a read for the sake of its prose.

But it won’t go away. Peggy Orenstein analyzes the book and its heroine, Bella Swan, in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Planned Parenthood has a safe sex campaign featuring vampires released in time for the release of the next film. And then there’s the fact that Bella is pregnant in the previews for the newest film. That finally piqued my interest enough to read it (yes, I really am that baby crazy). It won’t go away, I thought, so I might as well know what it is. If “Jacob” and “Edward” are going to be shorthand for something or symbols for “types,” I want to know what for. Plus, what is the deal with that weird pregnancy? (Don’t tell me!)

I’m just about half-way through the second book, and I’ll probably finish the series by the end of the week. I won’t be buying any posters or replica’s of Bella’s jewelry, but I understand the roots of the Twilight obsession. Stephenie Meyer is not good at prose (“twilight” was the best metaphor you could come up with? really?) but she can create a heck of a scene. The emotion in these books reaches straight into my gut.

I know that I’m being manipulated–I expected to be manipulated. I knew going in that Bella was going to be an Every Girl, designed to reminds me of my own adolescence. I certainly felt too ordinary in high school and remember feeling invisible all too sharply. I also remember the wildly mixed emotions that came with getting any attention for any reason. It sucked to be ignored, and it sucked to get dirty looks for “hogging attention.” Too pretty was bad and ugly was worse. In writing Bella Swan, Meyer hit that nail squarely on the head. (If she gets to be lazy with her metaphors, then so do I.)

But here’s where my goodwill comes from: Meyer respects the intensity of a girl’s feelings. The first book brought back a lot of the emotions I felt during the time in my life between when I met Nathan and when we decided to get married. The completely euphoric moments when I felt more love than I had ever felt before and the terrifying realization that I could no longer picture my life without him.

The second book is taking me back to my first broken heart; when that man promised me love and then abruptly left me, I cried so hard I vomited. I had to bribe myself with promises of cookies from the Hungarian Pastry Shop just to leave my Barnard dorm room. I got a B in English! And Stephenie Meyer has respect for that. She doesn’t laugh at a girl’s broken heart, even if she got her heart broken by doing everything everyone told her not to do. Like Bella, I ignored warnings. I, too, told myself that I knew him better than they did. I imagined ridiculous scenarios that would allow us to be together forever when the extremely temporary nature of this arrangement was completely obvious to everyone else. It makes me laugh now, but I still wince, too. The pain I felt was real. So was the heady joy. And I felt it again and again. I made the same mistake again and again. I don’t wish I had done anything differently.

Why is this series so popular? Because it is earnest. It may use some pretty terrible metaphors to accomplish its task, but it succeeds in expressing just how epic our prosaic romances feel to us. The first man to break my heart was not the first man I loved. My first love took his time in stringing me along before rejecting me. And you know what feels really good? Reading a book that takes that seriously. This book understands why I still remember his smell and why that memory still puts me right back in mini van he drove when he was home for Christmas from college; I pretended I wasn’t cold even though I was shivering, tried to will the drive to last longer, tried to come up with anything to say to make him sit in my father’s driveway with me for just one more minute. To this day, I have nightmares that involve coming thisclose to that same love and getting rejected all over again. It’s been over ten years since I fell for that boy and more than five since he stopped speaking to me, but I still have the same dreams. We couldn’t be together because who knows why? Too young? Too stupid? Too cruel? All of the above? And I enjoy reliving it all through Twilight because it is just so damn satisfying that his stand-in is a vampire who is literally cold as ice. The series is not self-aware. It’s not clever. It is entirely in earnest, and I find that endearing.

It doesn’t matter to me if books three and four hit me in the same visceral way. It doesn’t matter that I probably won’t think about any of these characters or plots once I’ve finished the books. I almost never leave a book unfinished (and I am starting to think that these really are just one long book). What matters is that it is so easy to project my adolescent self onto Bella that all of the terribly ordinary details of my own first love, first heartbreak, first rebound relationship become, for just a little while, an epic saga.

Educate Yourself! Read the Pregnancy and Anxiety/Depression Bible

Today’s post is a book review with a mission: to promote awareness about anxiety and depression before, during and after pregnancy. I sent a copy of this book to my mother. I will send one to your local library if it doesn’t have a copy. This book is so important. Thankfully, its title is better than “Pregnancy and Anxiety/Depression Bible.” It is my bible, though, and it is actually called:

Pregnant on Prozac: The Essential Guide to Making the Best Decision for You and Your Baby. By Dr. Shoshanna Bennett, Clinical Psychologist.

My Bible for All Things Pregnancy and Medication Related

This is the only comprehensive source about what to do if you already have anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, etc. and want to have a baby/are pregnant. I am not exaggerating. Want to read a book about postpartum depression? Everyone and her sister has published a book on it. Take your pick. Lived with this your whole life and want to prepare for pregnancy with that plus an increased risk for postpartum you-name-it disorder? ONE BOOK. One. Many thanks to everyone who has worked to erase the stigma on PPD. Seriously, you have done amazing work. Can we also turn some attention to pre-existing, prenatal & postpartum anxiety? Even the Surgeon General knows that anxiety disorders are more common in women. I can’t help but feel that we don’t have more books about this because people just don’t want to talk about it in general. In my experience, we refuse to talk about something when we are ashamed. In fact, this blog is part of my effort to stamp out my own shame and feelings of failure and inadequacy. Stomp! Stamp! Stomp!

And now, about the book:

Dr. Bennett writes as though her readers were sitting in her office. She has obviously spent a lot of time talking with patients and their families about treatment options and pregnancy. Her extensive experience shows as she relays scientific/medical information in a conversational tone but avoids throwing everything at you at once. Her information is backed by research, but her tone is never cold. Patients’ stories (names changed, of course) sprinkle the text, proving that these decisions are different for everyone. She also calms fears obviously related more to the stigma surrounding mental illness than to reality. This woman is clearly used to talking to real people. The fact that my mother really liked this book says a lot, too, because when she’s worried, she can’t just ask about it at the next therapy session. Relying on me for information can be hard; I used to practice denial like some people practice yoga. This book helped us so much, because it gave us a more neutral place to start talking to each other about the decisions that would come up when I did get pregnant. The more my family knows in advance, the less I have to explain all at once.

You see, there are two distinct parts to any decision I make about my treatment and pregnancy. There’s the medical/psychological part, obviously, where I look at the risks and benefits with my team of professionals, a process I talked about in an earlier post and will talk about again later in this post. Then there’s the part where I explain that decision to close friends and family. My mom, my mother-in-law, my sister, by very closest friends. Don’t get me wrong–not everyone has the right to ask for more information. I don’t mean to imply that women who take antidepressants during pregnancy have to explain themselves. My advice for dealing with self-righteous people who tell you what to do and/or demand that you justify a decision they don’t understand is simple: walk away. My dad likes to say “Don’t argue with an idiot. He’ll drag you down to his level and beat you at his own game.” Most of what my dad says about people in general is unkind and untrue, but I am inclined to agree with his assessment of idiocy. This process I’m talking about, the one that comes after the decision, involves educating the people who love me. They worry. Their hearts are in great places. I want to them to feel included and informed.

There’s a special person in that group: my husband. Dr. Bennett is so eloquent about partners. She has talked to many, because they are necessarily part of her patients’ decisions. Nathan is my everything. I get antsy when he’s away from home. He’ll obviously be the father of any kid I bring into this world. So I gave him a privilege no one else has. I even signed papers to make it legal; he can talk to my therapist and psychiatrist directly. [Time out to say thank GOD these papers exist separately from the marriage contract, so there are no secret phone calls ala Don in Mad Men calling his wife’s psychoanalyst to get a full report on every session. Nathan would never do something like that, but I’m just glad it’s not legal anymore in general.] Nathan has the advantage of being able to come in to the office and ask my therapist or psychiatrist direct questions. He still talks about the time he got to spend alone with Dr. C, my psychiatrist, when they just asked each other questions about how best they can help me. And that conversation is still helpful for me, too, if only because the fact that they know and like one another gives me a great shorthand when talking to them. Nathan’s trust in my “team” has a lot to do with feeling included. But it’s not so easy for all partners. Some of them come into this process for the very first time after one partner is already pregnant and the decision must be made as quickly as possible. Some people don’t even know they have any feelings about medication and pregnancy until they’re staring at an ultrasound. Nathan might experience that. And we have a place to go, an expert to ask, when these heartbreakingly delicate decisions come up. As Dr. Bennett points out, this saves everyone so much heartache. It gives the conversation a safe space and a time limit. No unending circular discussion necessary. I’m not about to invite everyone I’m close to. And I don’t have to, which is great because it sounds exhausting. I can just give them a copy of this book and talk to them after they read it.

A note on building a team: as Dr. Bennett so wisely advises, a team of people who each have expertise in a different area is the best way to go. Therapist and Psychiatrist are, in my case, two members of that team. There’s a whole chapter in Pregnant on Prozac on “The Importance of Therapy” and a subchapter called “Pills Are Not Enough.”  I couldn’t agree more. My psychiatrist says he will refuse to write prescriptions if I don’t stay in therapy. He doesn’t think it’s safe to stop checking in with a professional, nor does he believe that true progress is made by only taking pills. There’s no treatment of the underlying problem in that approach. And one unfortunate truth of psychiatry is that pills eventually stop working. [Your body gets used to that chemical, metabolizes more of it, less of it gets to your brain, and you have to find a new one. This is the same reasons why alcoholics need a lot more liquor to get drunk than those of us who almost never drink–the liver takes out more and more of the stuff that makes you drunk before it can get to your brain.] Dr. Bennett feels the same way about therapy: treat the mind, not just the brain chemistry!

But there’s another chapter called “When Professionals Don’t Agree.” This is more and more likely to happen as my team of professionals expands to include experts on each of the things I want help with: therapist, psychiatrist, nutritionist, general practitioner, neurologist. So far, I already have that going. When we visit the Columbia University Women’s Mental Health Center, I’ll add an expert on mental illness, psychopharmacology and pregnancy. When I do actually find myself pregnant, I’ll add either obstetrician, midwife, or both. Then, I’ll add a doula. At the very end, there may be new nurses and doctors in a hospital who become part of the team. I am going to spend a lot of time in a lot of offices! What if they don’t agree? Who should I listen to? I should listen to the person who has the most expertise in that issue.

As Dr. Bennett points out carefully and forcefully, expertise in a field like psychiatry or obstetrics does not guarantee expertise in treating a pregnant woman who has an anxiety or mood disorder. This book confirmed my opinion that my psychiatrist is a great doctor because he says things like “I’m not an expert in pregnancy and antidepressants.” It also had me primed to accept his referral to the experts at Columbia University who are comfortable giving me advice on that topic.

So, what if my nutritionist doesn’t like the idea of me taking antidepressants during pregnancy? She is an expert on many things brain-related, but not on psychiatric disorders. I will kindly ask her to let me make that decision and to focus on my diet. I will look for a midwife or OB/GYN here in New Haven who has experience with pregnant women who have mood disorders, but even if I find such caregiver, s/he might disagree with the Columbia expert about medication during pregnancy. What then? Well, I will give each team member a list of the other professionals’ phone numbers so that they can argue among themselves, if necessary. I will most likely take the advice of the Columbia expert because I will have asked them for advice specifically about medication during pregnancy; I will be asking the midwife or obstetrician to help me with other maternal/child health issues and to be with me during labor/birth. Can you see why this whole Team of Experts idea is a truly great idea? Read the book for more on how to go about building your team, especially for some great advice about how to identify a true expert.

This is a long book review, I know. But as you can see, it’s not just a book review. It’s a compilation of the advice I have so far found most helpful in the pregnancy/medication decision. The first place I encountered most of that advice in one place, in easy-to-read prose, was Pregnant on Prozac. [By the way, she discusses many possible medications, not just Prozac, but it does make for a pithy title, doesn’t it?]

The book is for everyone who is at risk for every kind of mood disorder before, during or after pregnancy. I recommend it to anyone who is at all worried about this issue. Did you know that obsessive-compulsive disorder is relatively common during pregnancy and postpartum? Checking to make sure the baby is still breathing every five minutes is not normal. You should feel nervous but not having panic attacks about taking a new baby outside. I mention this one in particular, because many, many, many people tell women who suffer from OCD during or after a pregnancy that her worries are normal. Yes, it is normal to worry. No, it is not normal to fear nap-time because the baby could just stop breathing at any moment. But it is so hard to see and happens so easily because moods change all the time when hormones go crazy. Wouldn’t it just be great if every woman knew the warning signs of an actual disorder? Wouldn’t it be great if more women could feel free to ask an expert “is this normal?” Wouldn’t it be nice to know that it is normal? And wouldn’t it be really nice to get help if it isn’t?

Psychological screenings are slowly becoming part of routine prenatal and postpartum care. But it’s not happening fast enough. I believe that the best way to make this happen faster is for women to demand that their doctors take better care of their mental health. Go ahead! If you’re pregnant or just had a baby, on your next doctor’s visit, say “I want a psychological screening, just to make sure.”

Here, I’ll walk you through a psychological screening to make it less scary: you sit with a doctor and answer questions about your daily life. Your habits. How you feel about ordinary things. They take notes. Some of the questions sound weird, but they are just questions. Trust me, they want honest answers. They’re not hard questions, but the tricky part is to stop looking for the meaning behind them. That’s a little hard, especially with all the note-taking. But it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Focus on being as honest as possible, and focus on the question at hand. If they ask “How often do you check on the baby while she’s napping?” then just tell them. If you freak out and ask “What does that mean? Are you saying I do it too often? Are you saying I don’t love my baby?” then they will try to calm you down and bring you back to answering the question. They won’t tell you what it means, so don’t bother asking. Remember that if you give honest answers, you’ll get an honest answer. And that these people deal with liars for a living.But seriously, you know what’s a lot scarier than a diagnosis? Trying to deal with an undiagnosed mental illness all by yourself. Trust me. That’s harder than anything.

Kids Are Smart: How I Learned to Love Science Again

Somewhere along my own path from girl to woman, I got the impression that I was not good at science. My talents definitely lay in the humanities, but I got darn good grades in IB (International Baccalaureate) Chemistry and Physics. I even got a decent grade on my IB Physics exam, which took about half a day, included only a fraction of multiple choice questions and almost always had us show our work. English, history and even economics came easily for me, so I somehow got the idea that I should focus on the humanities. Recently, that all changed. It started with feminism.

This is my first summer working in child care. Obviously, I spent a good chunk of every day outside and, obviously, I was bound to encounter bugs and other “creepy crawlies.” As a feminist who wants children to see women participating in all aspects of life, even the exploration of slug slime, I felt bound and determined from day one to show no fear.

I am lucky–I have no hangup about bugs. Never have. I grew up in the woods in Northern Minnesota, so it was mandatory that all children learn what’s actually dangerous and what’s not. If you’re going to be encountering garter snakes on a daily basis every summer, it’s good to know that they’ll never bite you. I am terrified of wood and deer ticks, but they do actually bite and carry disease. I’m not afraid of snakes, spiders, worms, slugs or even leeches. I put leeches on hooks during fishing trips. Puh-leeze!

My new scientific interest started with bugs, but expanded during my time with the preschoolers at the child care center. I try to take their “Why?”s seriously and answer the question if it is a genuine question (not just reflexive). When they ask about how the world works, I like to give the scientific answer. I have a good memory. It’s really fun to see their faces. They love physics. I am good at explaining stuff. And, one more time, I want them to know that women are good at science. From bugs to dinosaurs to the solar system, I have been re-learning, learning and passing knowledge along every chance I get.

Along the way, I discovered that I love science. I have read, for fun, books on genetics, chemistry, medicine and evolution. Among my favorites are The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for telling a darn good story and clearly explaining both the history of growing (culturing) cells in lab as well as the history of ethics in medicine, and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I’m currently enjoying The Poisoner’s Handbook, which explains the history of the chemistry of poisons and how the fields of toxicology and forensic medicine came to be. I also love murder mysteries, so the Flavia de Luce series wins tons of points for teaching me more about chemistry, yes, specifically of poisons, and for starring an eleven-year-old girl with some serious scientific talent and know-how in both the lab and in the crazy situations she gets herself into and out of with remarkable problem solving skills.

Thank you, dear children, for rekindling my interest in how things work, even down to the cells in my body. And now, They Might Be Giants, singing Science is Real.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty33v7UYYbw&feature=related]

Science is Awesome! Brain Research & Neuroplasticity

I’ve been a little hard on doctors lately, so I wanted to do a post about some doctor stories that have me bouncing-in-my-chair excited.

I just started reading a book called “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science” by Norman Doidge. I’ll do a full post/review of this book when I’m finished reading it, but I just have to tell you what I’ve learned so far! (Rolfer Brooke recommended it to me, so I got it for the kindle immediately.)

There’s a concept called “neuroplasticity,” named for “neuron” (receptor cells, receivers of signals of all kinds) and “plastic” as in malleable, changing, flexible. The basic idea is this: if something is damaged in the brain or in a body part that is essential for communicating with the brain–e.g. damaged retina = loss of sight–then you can use various exercises and tools to teach the brain a new path to the same result. It finds away around that damaged part. The damage is still there. You don’t fix it, you find a new path. And for those of us who have felt un-fixable, this is some pretty great news!

The first doctor/researcher Doidge features can help the brain of a person who has been blind from birth create actual visual images. They use a camera strapped to a pair of glasses and an electrode strip on the tongue. Camera tells electrodes to fire, tongue tingled (like “champagne bubble fizz”), brain gets signals from tongue and creates a visual image. It works. For real. He got the idea of using the skin to send “visual” signals to the brain when he realized that a blind person using a cane turns the vibrations in the hand into a map of the room in the brain. How cool is that?! As a certain seven-year old likes to say, that is double-scoop awesome.

Why am I so excited? Well, for a long time, there was an attitude about disorders like my anxiety and depression that sort of went like this: “Your genes caused your brain to deal badly with serotonin and other chemicals. Sorry, but that’s how it’s going to be forever. We do have these pills you can take, though.” Now, my amazing therapist “L” is talking to me about how new research is showing that therapy and meds in combination can RETRAIN my brain to stop re-uptaking too much serotonin and let more of the stuff hang out, helping my moods. The neurons also find new pathways g (She may have used different language.) By practicing mindfulness and other anxiety-reducing “cognitive-behavioral” tools, I can train my brain to actually be less anxious. The neurons themselves seem to be learning.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or “CBT,” is not technically the kind of therapy I use (interpersonal therapy has been my method of choice). But many of the strategies and tools we’ve developed for me overlap into the CBT area of therapy, which is all about using outward behavior to produce new and different cognitive (in the mind) results.

Who feels hopeful about a medication-free life?! Or at least a medication-free couple of years while I pop out some kids? I do! I do!

Here’s the catch: I have to want it, badly. I have to do things that feel exhausting, terrifying, embarrassing, uncomfortable. I have to take the meds, for now. I have to pay for twice weekly therapy and quarterly, crazy-expensive, far away (NYC) psychiatric appointments. Because, as I may have mentioned, no one can put a price on Dr. C’s support as I try to get off my meds. A psychiatrist whose goal is to get me to the point where I don’t need the meds and therefore all but stop seeing/having to pay him? Yes. I found one.

I have to work with a whole support network, a team, which means I have no shyness left. I can write this stuff for the Internet at large because I talk about it with near strangers so often. But oh, dear readers, I am actually molding and changing my brain. Genetic lemons? Hand me a juicer. I’ll make lemonade until my arms fall off.

Bring. It. On.

I Am Not My Uterus; or, Why I Dislike the Conservative Approach To Preconception Care

I think it’s time for a post that better defines “Preconception Health” as I see it, and not just because I was recently asked why I was anticipating fertility issues. Let’s start with the bare minimum–obviously, that’s the government and the first hit on google when I type in “preconception health.” Here’s what womenshealth.gov has to say:

“Preconception health is a woman’s health before she becomes pregnant. It means knowing how health conditions and risk factors could affect a woman or her unborn baby if she becomes pregnant.  … some foods, habits, and medicines can harm your baby — even before he or she is conceived. Some health problems, such as diabetes, also can affect pregnancy. Every woman should be thinking about her health whether or not she is planning pregnancy. One reason is that about half of all pregnancies are not planned.”

Stop. Right. There. I need to rant, briefly: people, women included, need to be healthier–regardless of whether or not we plan on reproducing! I HATE being talked to or treated as someone who needs to think about her reproductive system as more important than anything else. This statement makes “every woman’s health” an afterthought, a thought after we have all given appropriate thought to the women who will be reproducing. Are you kidding me? I should be thinking about my health in case I get pregnant accidentally? We’re in the middle of an obesity epidemic, and that’s just for starters! Take care of yourselves, ladies, to prevent obesity, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, osteoporosis, even depression, for heaven’s sake! We are not incubators, and I resent even the slightest intimation that woman = uterus. We can continue, now. I have taken a deep breath and counted to ten.

“Unplanned pregnancies are at greater risk of preterm birth and low birth weight babies. … about 1 in 8 babies is born too early. Researchers are trying to find out why and how to prevent preterm birth. But experts agree that women need to be healthier before becoming pregnant. By taking action on health issues and risks before pregnancy, you can prevent problems that might affect you or your baby later.”

Rant time, again. I can tell by the language they use here that they’re trying to reach as many women as possible and avoid sounding too preachy. I respect that. I don’t respect the manipulative use of “baby” when we are clearly talking about a “fetus.” This is an obvious attempt to push the emotional buttons necessary to get a busy or reluctant woman into her doctor’s office. I understand that. I don’t forgive it. I’m not even talking about the abortion debate rhetoric–a fetus is dramatically different from a baby, and I want to reclaim this language from politics. I recently read a great book about how gestation influences the rest of life. I came away from Origins, by Annie Murphy Paul, thinking WOW are we missing a lot by just looking at a fetus as just a future baby! There is so much more to this! But for the purposes of the webpage I’m talking about, I suppose that would be too wordy. But I think women deserve a straight up, educational, clear and concise wakeup call, rather than gooey talk about “your baby.” To me, the message is clear: too many women are not taking good care of themselves in general. If we focused on empowering women to take charge of their own health and health care, unplanned pregnancy would be a much less frightening prospect. Not to mention the fact that it would happen less often as women became more invested in and educated about their own bodies.

Now let me share the hilariously bad photograph that accompanies the preconception health page of womenshealth.gov. Because it’s just so… well… “.gov”… Can you count the ethnicities? Notice how the doctor is the only person who is clearly 100% caucasian? Love it.

The title for this photo is "man-woman-doctor," by the way. Glad she has her male protectors. *Rolls eyes*