(This was originally planned as a Pecha Kucha talk for #ACPA14. Due to a strong sense of responsibility to other areas of my life, I was unable to attend and have turned it into a blog post instead).
I love the hokey pokey. I love it because it’s message is so simple, but often overlooked — you are the sum of your parts. You are more than your right arm, your left foot. In the end, you put your whole self in, and that’s what matters. That’s how people get to know you and celebrate you. Or is it?
I started seeing a specialist in August for pain after I self-diagnosed myself using everyone’s favorite medical resource, the Internet. The doctor concurred with my self-diagnosis and began a fairly conservative course of treatments. At the beginning of each visit, he would ask me about my pain level.
And here’s where I’m disingenuous to myself, and to the process of healing — every single time he asked, I lied. I told him I was okay when, in reality, I frequently cried from the pain.
On a cold morning in January, he asked again just before starting another treatment, and, at last, I bravely told him the truth. He stopped what he was doing, sat with me, and talked about what options I had and how he could better proceed knowing exactly what was going on.
Later that night, I wrote in my private journal about it. There was such a positive result that I wondered why I’d been afraid to be honest. And, in the same vein, I wondered why we can’t be that honest about the different types of pain we’re in. Including emotional.
For a week in the fall, student affairs professionals were adamant that we would have better, richer conversation about mental health of professionals in our field. Following a tragic suicide of a residence life professional in Vermont, we committed to doing more, being better, and caring more universally for our colleagues.
But, like, most topics that rise to the surface of our social media feeds, the discussion fizzled and we moved on to whatever current event next grabbed our attention and our hearts. We continued through the motions and stopped seeing each other.
We don’t directly address our worry with the co-worker who is working too many hours. We don’t ask about the colleague who stops going to lunch with their peers and avoids social situations. We express concern for one another in gossipy conversations behind closed doors rather than caring confrontation. We are more likely to make an emboldened referral for a student we just met than we are for a friend who we see daily.
The stigma of mental health in the United States is alive and well while the mental health of student affairs professionals is not well. We work too many hours, we compare ourselves to others too freely, and we take on more than we can handle seeking experience for our next job or, worse, recognition that may never come.
As many as 15 million people seek psychotherapy or counseling in the United States each year. That number feels high, right? Except it’s not. It’s only five percent of the population of the United States. Five percent. Consider that only five percent of student affairs professional may be seeking therapy or counseling and contrast that with the high stress nature of the work we do. Now factor in that an estimated 26.2% of American adults have symptoms of mental illness. And still, only 5% seek treatment — 21% of people with symptoms let them go unaddressed for myriad of reasons include lack of access to resources, fear, and the prevailing stigma of mental health.
How can we take care of our students if we aren’t taking care of ourselves? How can we begin to heal until we are honest about the pain we are in?
Kristen Abell of University of Missouri Kansas City has regularly been a force in this charge, sharing her story of depression openly so that others may connect. And connect they do — people reach out to Kristen as a touchstone, a resource.
I know because I’m one of them.
I emailed Kristen from the floor of a bathroom in a hotel where I’d just had a panic attack at a conference, a panic attack so severe that I lost consciousness. Instead of asking for help from the people I was with, I reached out to someone 801 miles away because I knew what the ratio of support to judgment would be. I didn’t have to fear the stigma.
I am the sum of my parts, as are you. And for many of us, the sum of those parts includes a part of our story that people don’t seem to want to hear because it’s icky and unknown. I am a smart, witty, kind woman with a streak of snark and a gift for writing. I was also diagnosed with a panic disorder, depression, and anxiety in 2008.
I’m here to keep this conversation alive and moving, to bring it back to the table where it belongs.
Care for one another. Ask about changes in mood or behavior. Address directly – and kindly – your concerns. Offer your assistance. Ask how someone is and listen, really listen, to the answers — both what’s said and what’s not.
But don’t let this conversation stop. Be your authentic whole self — tell your story — and love others for the entirety of who they are too.
Because that is what it’s all about.
In December, as part of my 31 Random Acts of Kindness, I mailed a gift card for a pizza place to the current residents of the residence hall room where I lived my first year at Ohio University. I was feeling nostalgic for finals week and, watching my current students prepare for their exams, I thought about those times with my friends in our hall fifteen years prior. Like most of my random acts, I sent it off into the world, and didn’t think much about it again.
Until this morning.
I checked my mail on the way to work and there was a letter addressed to “Current Bobcat Resident” at my address. When I mailed the gift card, I was forced to give a return address, but figured it would be ignored by the residents. I assumed this letter would be from a student working with the development office. I looked at the return address, and immediately recognized it as my own former address.
Inside the envelope this morning was a thoughtful thank you note from the residents of the room written by one roommate:
Hello OU Alum!
I just wanted to thank you for sending my roommate and I the generous gift card to study for our finals last semester! We hardly check our mail downstairs so I literally juts got your letter last week. We are both new to [Residence Hall] this year and we love it! It is like living in a hotel…
[That hall has clearly been renovated since my time there and is no longer a first-year hall. He went on to tell me a bit about himself and his roommate -- their majors, what they're involved in, his plan to study abroad next year.]
This was such a great idea. I think I will do something like what you did to my old room in [Other Residence Hall]. Thanks again for thinking of us! OU OH YEAH!
I’m so glad that two students who love my alma mater as much as I do were the recipients. My heart is full this morning — this letter means the world to me and knowing that they may pass on the kindness makes it even sweeter.
People don’t really see each other.
You often hear the adage that people hear one another without listening; I would argue the same to be true for seeing.
Since having surgery, I’ve stood in waiting areas of restaurants and doctors’ offices while others sat, wondering what it would take for someone to offer me their seat. Never in the eight weeks since surgery, despite a fairly obtuse walking boot, has anyone offered to trade spaces with me. Tonight at a retail store, a woman pushed past me in the checkout lane — literally pushing me forward and trapping me between the cashier’s counter and my cart — and when I sighed, she snapped at me for sighing. I pointed out the walking boot, and she dismissed me with an eye roll.
It’s bigger than a small, temporary foot injury though.
We just don’t see each other.
We overlook physical warning signs of depression, anxiety, illness, addiction. We don’t acknowledge changes to demeanor or behavior in the immediate, waiting instead until others have reached their breaking point before acknowledging the changes or offering help. We ignore what we don’t understand or can’t explain. Is someone using more sick time than usual? Have they stopped engaging in their typical social circles? Is their fuse shorter than it used to be? We avoid asking about these things, not for fear it will make the other person uncomfortable, but because it makes us feel uncomfortable.
Truth be told, I would probably decline a seat if offered most days. But the feeling of being seen, of being acknowledged is an important one to all of us — more important than personal comfort. Feeling invisible, feeling unseen, is one of the most desperate feelings in the world. We’ve all experienced it, and yet, we struggle in these moments to muster courage. In November, someone told me they were worried about me; the things she was worried about had been going on since August. Had she not seen them? Or had she not wanted to see them?
Who have you seen lately without really seeing them? And who do you already know you should reach out to?
I texted Kathryn yesterday afternoon about a sweet elderly woman who was getting her first pedicure where I was getting a manicure. She was tentative and nervous; she was also apologetic about her lack of experience, her brittle nails, her difficulty hearing. And so when she mentioned that she was 80 and has five children, still lives independently, and is taking care of her ill husband, I was in awe — this woman, with so much life experience and strength, was apologizing for not knowing how a pedicure proceeds.
As I paid for my manicure I gestured to my vacated chair where she was now getting a manicure, her back to me, and quietly asked to pay for her services as well. The shop owner nodded agreeably and wrote down my new total for me. She ran my debit card, I handed her enough cash to cover both tips, and then I slipped out quietly.
And that’s what my entire month of Random Acts of Kindness was — finding joy and opportunity in moments that exist. I rarely had to go out of my way to make a Random Act of Kindness happen — and most didn’t involve substantial amounts of money (or any money). They were all opportunities that presented themselves through my daily interactions with friends, family, and strangers.
So what surprised me most throughout the 31 Days?
I was surprised by the people who doubted my intentions, who questioned whether it was self-promotion to share the acts of kindness via social media. I understand their perspective (as I truly believe the most meaningful charity happens anonymously), but I simply wanted to inspire others that little things can make a big difference. I appreciate the dialog on the topic and hope that there was a mutual place of understanding reached on the topic.
I was surprised by how easy it was to find accomplices — my husband, baristas, colleagues, friends. No one said no when I asked if they would help; no one laughed at the idea. In fact, more people got into the spirit of it and asked how they could help.
I was surprised by the random acts of kindness shown to me. They were easier to see when I saw them through the lens of doing them for others — a surprise $5 Starbucks gift card in my email, my favorite candy delivered from a vendor-turned-friend, coffee brought to me on a difficult afternoon, hugs when I needed them.
After 31 Days — and 31 acts — I’ve learned that I will continue look for opportunities to surprise others, to help them, to show them that there’s unexpected kindness in the world. And I’ve learned to keep looking for that same kindness in my own life.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard a lot about the supposed War on Christmas. Much of it was to do with my involvement in the planning of a holiday luncheon and discussions of how representative they should be of other faiths and cultures, as well as inclusive for non-believers and doubters. But I’ve also read articles and blog posts about the war, with special attention paid to Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly. I even briefly changed my Facebook profile to the Grinch, a slight nod to the idea that I, as a Jewish person, was undermining Christmas and attempting to take it away from others.
And after a few days, I changed it back to my smiling face — because it’s simply not true.
I sent out glittered holiday cards to friends and family. I wish people a merry Christmas when I know that’s their belief. I annually attend Christmas mass with my husband and in-laws (and it’s my favorite mass of the year). I listen to Christmas carols nearly relentlessly in my office and house. I buy Christmas gifts for my nephews, all of whom believe in Santa and can tell you the real story behind Christmas in varying levels of accuracy.
Yes, they believe in Santa and flying reindeer.
The War on Christmas isn’t with Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or even the non-believers. The War on Christmas, I’m afraid is a civil war being fought amongst Christians.
There are those Christians who celebrate the commercialized version, punctuated by 40% off sales, trees, garland, glitter, and Santa. And there are Christians who celebrate the birth of Christ their savior, punctuated by nativity scenes, Silent Night, and the reading of the Christmas story from the Book of Luke. The people who are made at the War on Christmas aren’t mad at the acknowledgment of other holidays; they are mad at the watered down version of Christmas that’s become the norm in United States culture.
I, as Jewish woman, am not responsible for polarizing this time of year.
Somehow it’s been projected onto other faiths that we started the War on Christmas, that we made this harder. And yet it’s other Christians who water down the actual celebration and meaning behind the holiday, who claim offense at being wished a happy holiday when — truly — that’s just my preferred language. It’s other Christians who celebrate a sweetened condensed version of a holiday that celebrates the very basis of an entire faith.
Yes, I’ve asked for my beliefs to be respected. I’ve asked for my faith to be included and acknowledged in celebrations. Truth be told, though, I would prefer not having to use vacation days for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the autumn to having a few Chanukah decorations at a December party. I’m not offended by the colors red and green or the singing of Christmas carols and I won’t argue for their removal; I would argue for inclusion of others people and festivities that are friendly instead of tense and forced.
When we can finally acknowledge that the War on Christmas is a civil war, we can begin to address the underlying issues. Instead, as long as finger pointing and fair and balanced opinions are extorted, the blame game will continue — and a lack of understanding will become the unfortunate underlying meaning of the season.
I’ve had writer’s block for almost a year. I think, at some point, that means you’re no longer a writer — if you ever were one to begin with.
This reminds me of a beloved episode of The Golden Girls in which Blanche sets out to write the great American novel, but first finds herself with writer’s block and later finds herself sleep-deprived and delirious.
(I have an uncanny ability to connect any life situation back to an episode The Golden Girls. Seriously. Try me.)
I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever write as prolifically as I did before, if I have stories left to be told. It feels like there should be something there — after all, life goes on — but when faced with the blank screen and cursor, nothing comes.
As a result, I’m reading more (four books in the past week). I’m absorbing all the words I can, hoping that in the tangle of my brain, they eventually form something meaningful and coherent again. It seems selfish to complain about writer’s block, really, but writing is so much a part of my identity that to not be doing it actively and voraciously is plain old weird.
But maybe it’s fitting. My word for 2013 was “silence,” after all. And talking less, even if in writing, and listening more certainly isn’t a bad thing — for any of us.
Like many of my Facebook friends, I annually participate in November’s 30 Days of Gratitude, in which my status each day proclaims my gratitude for something. This was the third or fourth year I participated, and I always find the reflection to be helpful. I have so much to be thankful for — my husband, my friends, my family, and the little corner of the world I call my own. My statuses ranged from reflective to slightly humorous (I really do have nice hair).
And so this morning as I prepared to write the final thankful status, I wondered what would happen if I kept it going. What if every day of the year my status was about something for which I’m thankful? Certainly there is enough joy and love in my life to sustain that for lifetimes.
But it’s also important to me that I channel the joy and gratitude in my heart into bigger things. And so I’ve decided in December that rather than a passive Facebook status, I’m committing to performing a random act of kindness daily. I want to actively create joyful moments for other people. It’s time to share what I’ve already found, especially with those who need it most.
Want to follow along or join in? I’ll be using the hashtag #31RAOK on Twitter and posting at Facebook as well.
My local big box store was swarmed with parents and young adults this afternoon browsing the college aisles. I love browsing those aisles annually to predict which things my students will move in with in the fall and which will likely make an appearance in the dumpster at the end of the academic year. I’m amazed at how many of the things that fill those shelves are poor choices. A quick Google search when I got home showed that there are other blog posts about what not to buy students in the realm of technology, but very little about their residence hall. After almost a decade of professional experience in residence life, I’m happy to share my Five Products to Avoid in a Residence Hall.
Disclaimer: Before you go shopping, review the residence hall policies and student handbook. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Big box stores don’t care about those nearly-universal policies; they want to sell you a room full of the comforts of home. But many items featured in those aisles are prohibited at schools — candles, coffee pots, string lights, electric grills, etc. You can save yourself time, grief, and maybe an incident report by reviewing the rules before you shop.
1. Bed Bug Mattress Encasements (or anything related to preventing bed bug infestations): Bed bugs are brought into spaces by people and can live in linens, clothes, stuffed animals, etc. While an encasement protects a mattress from infestation, it doesn’t do anything to protect a student’s assets. The best line of defense is to educate your student about signs of bed bug infestation and know what the process is on campus for reporting suspected infestation.
2. Additional Furniture: Almost every residence hall room will come outfitted with appropriate amounts of furniture. While novelty furniture may seem like a good idea, it inevitably ends up cluttering an already tight space. This may be a better purchase after a student moves in and gets settled. Better? Wait until a fall semester or fall quarter visit and see if there’s a need for it.
3. Dinnerware/Flatware Sets: A first year student will eat almost every meal in the dining hall or cafeteria. It’s the hub of social activity on most campuses. Besides, you’re paying for the meal plan. Use it. Skip the set that’s large enough for hosting a dinner party and grab two plates, two sets of flatware, and some cups and mugs. A student doesn’t have space to store much more than that. Don’t forget to pack the dish soap.
4. Water Coolers: This has been a recent fad and one I don’t understand. There is no shortage of potable water on college campuses. Buying a cooler — or even participating in a water delivery service — is an unnecessary expense and takes up precious floor space in a room.
5. Privacy Pop-Up Tents: I don’t know when these became a thing, but they seem like a mostly unnecessary thing. Roommates should be having conversations about privacy and use of the room, which could avoid someone needed to zip themselves into a nylon bubble. Resident Assistants live in the residence halls and well-trained to help students have those conversations before the tent seems like the best option.
Many colleges and universities also have preferred vendors for items like sheets, rugs, refrigerators, futons, and lofts. Make sure you read and understand the literature; in some cases, the preferred vendor is the only method of having a certain item (microfridges and lofts most often fall into this category). In addition to being good partners with the school, many of these vendors offer in-room delivery of items and, bonus, the school receives a percentage of the sale to support residence hall programs and activities.
I spend a lot of time thinking about silence.
This probably surprises some people who know me, the people who know my husband refers to me as a noisy little thing. I am terrible at both sitting still and being quiet. I sing nonsensical songs in the shower and I chatter as I do my daily work. I am (often regrettably) the first to respond to a question asked of a group and I am more comfortable filling silences than sitting with them. It both despite all of this and because all of this that the idea of silence weighs so heavily on me.
I’m intentional about silence in some venues. It can be a disarmingly effective tool in student meetings and conversations. It opens the door for quiet reflection in an organization’s board room. And though it is still an uncomfortable space for me, I recognize that it is an expansion of conventional communication.
Some of my fascination, admittedly, stems from the fact that silence is both a noun and a verb. There aren’t many of those words in the English language, a scarcity that makes it more noticeable. And just as it is both a noun and a verb, it is also a shield and a sword. We use silence to defend and protect, just as we use it to hurt others.
This is on my mind more than usual because I’ve felt silenced lately, mostly by my own volition, but also by the actions of others. I’m struggling to find my voice again and until then I find myself enveloped in a silence that’s… oppressive? tiring? physically uncomfortable? Maybe a little of all of those.
It will even out or I will sort it out, but for now, it’s a good lesson in being quieter and letting myself be uncomfortable.
Before leaving the office on Wednesday for the holiday weekend, I tweeted a picture of the large dry erase board where I track my long term projects. I noted that my Summer To Do list was now a Totally Done list, as each item had the large, scrawled “DONE” next to it in bright orange dry erase marker. Jason was quick to tweet back that something was missing, a reference to a collaborative year-long adventure in researching and advocating that came to fruition in late June.
As I responded, I realized — maybe with clarity for the first time — that a list of accomplishments would look very different than my seasonal to do list.
The To Do lists are my job. I edit handbooks, update training guides, assign students to rooms, and review processes.
There are a lot of things I accomplish in a day or week that never make it on to a To Do list — tough conversations, navigating potential political landmines, building relationships. They are often the unexpected work associated with my job, the sidecar to the To Do List.
There’s some overlap in these arenas, of course — a Venn diagram of sorts, where an accomplishment is tied to a task, even though I may never have anticipated it at the onset.
As I reflected this, I thought about what I would put on my accomplishment list for the summer, now that the world has seen the completed Summer To Do list. It would include a successful meeting with upper-level administrators, starting an important conversation with colleagues, seeking more professional responsibility in areas of growth, and identifying opportunities for self-advocacy, personally and professionally. It would also include taking more time off this summer and devoting more time to self-care — a huge accomplishment for me and, I hope, setting the pattern for better habits when the pace picks up again in the fall.
I’m glad I have the ability to see both — the list of tasks and projects I got done and the list of things accomplished along the way.
How would your To Do List and Accomplishment list differ?