Case Study of 1

A red ticket-dispenser in the psychiatric department instructs me to take a number and wait until it’s called. So, I do.

I am trying one last time to get mental health treatment. At least, that’s what I said two months ago to trick myself into following through on it. Suppressing doubts about whether this latest attempt would work, I looked up my health insurance’s list of local mental health care providers. The first few weren’t taking new patients. The next two said they didn’t take my insurance, even when I said I was sure they did. The next one was a hospital. The receptionist said there was no room for new patients. I told her that I could wait if needed and no, I am not suicidal, but I need help. She found me an appointment in two months’ time.

So two months later, I’m here. Another hour and I’m called to the registration desk. The receptionist says she isn’t sure if they take my insurance, and to go to the financial counseling department and then come back. Her coworker disagrees, so she just calls the counseling department instead, who confirm the hospital takes the insurance. The receptionist hands me a yellow paper square with my new number—“We call people by numbers here, not names,” she says—and instructs me to wait. The paper has a big “1” written on it. A good sign, I think, looking at the overflowing waiting room.

A nurse calls out “1” an hour later and I pee in a cup and return to waiting. Thirty minutes later, a therapist appears, asking for “1.” She seems nice, though she doesn’t look up from her computer when she asks if I’ve ever tried to kill myself. But when I tell her I how I’m doing, she tells me she is so sorry and I decide that she sounds like she means it. We schedule a follow-up and she walks me to the psychiatrist’s office.

I enter and begin repeating the answers I’ve just given the therapist to the standard mental health questions. No, I am not suicidal. I live with roommates. I do not have children. If I’m out with friends, I can definitely down a few drinks, but that happens maybe once a week. I work full-time. I have tried Wellbutrin and Effexor, but they did not work. I am desperate for something to work and willing to do what is needed to get better. I am trying to be responsible.

***

I blame the medical bills.

They pile up in a corner of my room, collecting cobwebs under the bed. Every few months, I gather them up, opening a few. There are doubles, triples, of the same bill, differing only in their dates. Others are solo, lone socks in the pile. I consider using them all as wallpaper.

After I was hospitalized with a particularly nasty skull fracture a few years ago, something snapped; suddenly, I could barely call a doctor. It might have something to do with the way the hospital treated me—a nurse said that they had all believed I was uninsured and had given me “different” treatment because of it—but I think it’s the bills’ fault. They started showing up mere weeks after I was discharged. They never slowed down, no matter how often I wrangled with my insurance company on day-long phone calls. I was broke, and the bills broke me.

So after the first hospitalization, hospitalization became my health care strategy. If you have a severe injury, the hospital will find you a primary care physician and force you to book an appointment. For the skull fracture, they did likewise for a psychiatrist, among other specialists to deal with the aftereffects of the injury.

It seemed great, but my enthusiasm waned when I left the hospital. Each doctor is a co-pay, and that’s if you’re insured. Without insurance, my first hospitalization would’ve cost $39,000 (I made $10 an hour at the time). With it, I was still on the hook for a few thousand dollars. Dizzying diagrams of future appointments and work schedules began to dot my notebooks alongside unworkable budgets. But I was unwell, so I lost track. Within months, I was missing appointments. Soon enough, I couldn’t remember the doctors’ names.

Eventually, I was without care again until being hospitalized in a new city, New York, where I’d just moved. I had no doctors here, and my mental health was declining precipitously. I chose to interpret this turn of events as a gift.

After a false start—I went to a hospital in my neighborhood, Bushwick, only to be discharged because the doctors “couldn’t figure out what was wrong”—I found a hospital rich people go to that accepted my insurance. My wish had been granted: I’d lock down future doctors. Thank god for my prematurely decomposing body.

It didn’t work out. The doctors were understandably focused on my physical ailments. When I mentioned other health problems, they told me to wait until I recovered to worry about the rest of it.

The night I was discharged, I was groggy, floating on morphine. I had complications that required the procurement of an ambulance to drive me home. Follow-ups were scheduled hastily as I was rushed out the door. Someone from the hospital called with the PCP’s information while I was horizontal, strapped to a stretcher. I scribbled the information on the back of my discharge papers. When I got home, I realized the pen had been out of ink.

Despite this, I found the doctor. I couldn’t remember any details about the appointment, but I returned to the upper-east-side hospital and spent a day asking administrative employees for help. Finally, a saintly woman in a tucked-away office, packed with precarious piles of papers, the Office of Historical Memories or something, tracked down the information.

As it turned out, the PCP was actually a clinic; I was seen by different doctors-in-training every time. It was rushed, and no one seemed to have notes. I asked for a psychiatry referral. They told me they couldn’t do that, and to find a psychiatrist myself. After further prodding, they offered the numbers of two psychiatrists. I again scribbled this information on the back of medical forms and left.

They remain in my room, a monument to the vast reserves of the human spirit—I, of course, never got an appointment. The first time around, it took me a year, maybe two, to disappear from the health care system post-hospitalization. This time, it took weeks.

I spent a year like this. I’m fortunate to have never had the type of depression that brings suicidal thoughts and extreme highs and lows; mine is the flat-line variety. Someone who takes days to respond to a text message does not have the ambition required to die—no thanks, sounds like work. But the depression got worse than I’d believed it could. And the bills kept arriving! The calls from unknown numbers multiplied. Once a month or so I answered one. Every time, it was a debt collector.

***

So I am here, making a good-faith shot of it, answering the psychiatrist’s questions.

We get through all of them. After a brief silence, she says she cannot prescribe me medication. When I ask why, she informs me that I am an alcoholic, and antidepressants do not work with alcohol. I say I am aware of the “don’t drink on meds” rule, and if it’s really the case that the medication will not work if I drink, then so be it, I’ll drink lemonade at parties. “I am desperate, and willing to do what it takes to get better,” I restate.

“You could not quit drinking if you tried, and you will not try,” she says. She has known me for twenty minutes at most. “I will likely recommend you get addiction treatment, which entails three appointments a week, and then you can get on an antidepressant.”

Perplexed, I tell her I do not need addiction treatment, that I sometimes go weeks without a drink, and besides, I work full-time and what with my whole exhausted-depressive thing, there is no way I could follow through on three appointments a week. I think about a family member who was court-ordered to attend AA meetings three times a week after an arrest, and how little the judge cared that he might lose his job for taking that much time off. This is criminal, I think.

She says that she will add to her notes that I am in denial about addiction, and if I’d like to get my blood work done so she can see the results and formally decide what treatment to recommend, I can do so. In the meantime, can I quantify my drinking for her notes on my alcoholism, she asks.

“Would you say you take like, ten shots?” She actually says this. I cannot speak, so I laugh. She is withholding medication I need as a perverse moral means-testing, because I mentioned I get drinks with friends once a week. The only possible outcome, should I refuse to go along with it, is that I will go untreated, or will lie about my drinking habits to a future psychiatrist if I ever get to see one. She must know this.

“It took me so long to get this appointment,” I say.

She stands and gestures to the door.

I get the blood work done. As I leave, I stare at the room of waiting patients, some of whom were here when I arrived six hours ago. This is a hospital for poor people. I can’t stop wondering how many of them this psychiatrist will also withhold medications from unless they, too, agree to whatever preconditions she chooses. How many other doctors like her are there? The rich and the poor use drugs at the same rate, but there is no doubt in my mind this woman sees everyone here as an addict or a criminal and is determined to punish us for it. There are no consequences for her, but some of us will die.

I think about last year, at the Bushwick hospital. I doubt there were any millionaires in that packed emergency room. They’d discharged me late at night, on a cocktail of painkillers but still pulsing with pain, to walk home.

These hospitals are located in the heart of the city’s gentrification but apparently those who can, avoid them. I’d never step foot inside one of those places, friends say when I describe my day. Everyone knows not to go to those hospitals. But I didn’t, and neither did the hundreds of other people who were in the psychiatric department this morning. “Why are these places packed if everyone knows this?” I think, to distract from other thoughts, about how, exactly, I will wait out the months it will take to get a new appointment, with a new psychiatrist, in Manhattan.

Anyone reading this likely knows health care is a gruesome, deadly separate-but-equal system in the United States. Anyone who can avoid these hollowed-out institutions on which so many working-class people rely is acting quite reasonably in doing so. They are carceral and dangerous—sometimes filled with literal toxins, as if this country needed more symbolism. They kill us, even if we kill ourselves. They tell us we are criminals, and we agree—a plea deal is the best anyone can get. They say we are addicts, and we wonder whether we must be addicts if we are to survive. None of this is news, it’s just another data point. These are hospitals in the richest city in the country, but the funneling of resources away from them reproduces segregation—it’s how they got this way in the first place. And it is worse elsewhere.

I don’t have any proscriptions (and yes, as you’re now aware, I don’t have any prescriptions either) beyond what many people are already doing: pushing for universal health care so at least we can get rid of the damn financial counseling department and all the co-pays (today’s experiment left me $45 poorer), funding long-term mental health care, and otherwise creating a world with less alienation, less poverty, shorter workweeks.

I’m just mad, and the stakes are so high. US life expectancy has dropped for the third straight year, in part because more people are killing themselves. If I were the suicidal type, this might be the end of my rope. (I cannot insist enough that I am not, and while the death of the author etc., please do not worry, I’m fine.) I just wish it, all of it, would be classified correctly, as murder: the mistreatment, the abuse, the insurance mix-ups, the lack of access in the first place, the disdain, the bills, what that psychiatrist did today. It’s homicide, on a mass scale: take a number, wait until it’s called.

An Essay Disguised as a Reading Roundup*

The Very Busy, Very Unproductive Life of Leon Wieseltier / Vanity Fair / Lloyd Grove

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Wayward Intellectual Finds God / New York Times / Sam Tenenhaus

Growing up, I wanted nothing more than the sort of literary success a man like Leon Wieseltier enjoyed. If there’s anything redeeming about this, it’s that my sought-after fantasy was less elitist than Wieseltier’s reality — as a teenager in western Pennsylvania, I assumed success lay somewhere between Henry Miller’s Parisian destitution, Ernest Hemingway’s Parisian destitution, and…James Baldwin’s Parisian destitution. A limited vision, admittedly, but what I got right, as did Wieseltier, was grasping a central element defining American literary success of the type my idols had achieved: that one is a man.

Which created complications for me, a woman. I imbibed story after story about heroic men and their romantic exploits — when not reading the novels of Baldwin, Camus, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Miller, or Steinbeck, I was reading their memoirs, their letters, their notes. And with each new influence came further confirmation of my quandary: masculinity seemed to be key to their ingenuous lives and work; while women entered into their stories, in some cases as mythical sources of desire, in others as desultory bodies to fuck, and very occasionally as admirably full characters (rarely, but it happened), women did not write the stories.

What was a teenage girl to do? I’m sure every young woman resolved this differently — or ideally, never had this trouble thanks to reading more women writers than I was exposed to — but for me, I internalized the values of my idols. Women were frail, distractions, hangers-on; I’d become masculine, independent. And I did. I grew to resent other women and resent myself whenever I had a thought or desire that didn’t fit with my vision of how these men lived. I couldn’t be a woman. After all, if I were, I’d never produce anything worthwhile.

***

I’d never heard the name Leon Wieseltier before this month. While I’ve always had a literary bent, some combination of my feeling that it’s unbecoming for a left-winger to dally too deeply in the elitist universe of high literature and my inescapable lack of a social pedigree that could familiarize me with that world, kept me from knowing many of the most recognizable names in the American literary pedigree, of which Wieseltier, apparently, was one.

So after reading his name, first, on a list of men who sexually harassed women, and next, in articles about how he was the latest victim of the ongoing societal “moment” of outing serial sexual harassers, I went looking for information about who Wieseltier was to those who had known his name in connection to a pursuit other than sexual harassment.

I found two profiles of Wieseltier (there are surely many more, but I wasn’t willing to give infinite time to a now-disgraced man; after all, hadn’t he taken too much time from too many young women already?). One is from Vanity Fair in 1995, the other from the New York Times, 1999.

Both profiles are laudatory, even when criticizing Wieseltier, in the way that writing a profile of anyone is an act that offers its subject the benefits of national attention.

I’m not interested in retrospectively reading into twenty-year-old profiles a “gotcha” of the future Wieseltier (although sentences like “For Wieseltier, the tension between the scholarly and the sensual is not easily resolved” from the Times profile certainly lend themselves to such a reading). Rather, it’s the “type” of which Wieseltier is exemplar that I want to consider.

The Vanity Fair profile is skeptical of its subject from the start: its headline reads “The Very Busy, Very Unproductive Life of Leon Wieseltier,” and indeed, it’s hard to finish the profile without questioning whether Wieseltier is a fraud. The story quotes celebrity after celebrity praising Wieseltier’s genius — Ruth Bader Ginsburg tells us “I like his mind,” Wyton Maralis insists upon our subject’s soulfulness — and yet, no quote as to Wieseltier’s character sticks out so much as that from his only celebrity detractor in the piece.

On the phone from Ravello, Italy, Gore Vidal makes alarming retching noises.

“YEEECCCCCH!” he exclaims the moment Wieseltier is mentioned. “I’ve not got a strong stomach! This name is literally nauseous, as in ‘creating nausea.’”

Won’t Vidal at least give Wieseltier his due for likability?

“He’s a social climber!” Vidal proclaims. “You’ve got to learn some skills!”

Vidal, in many ways a model for the man Wieseltier aspires to be — infamous, beloved, controversial, a loud-mouthed asshole, but a genius nonetheless — suggests an alternative reading of the source of Wieseltier’s renown: his elevation is a matter of fashion and trend, rather than of substance.

Similarly, in the New York Times profile, we read of Wieseltier’s position at the center of “Washington’s glitterati.” Mentions are made of how interesting Wieseltier is, even as note is also made that he continues to struggle to produce what sounds like a painfully boring book on “sighing,” a subject that’s mentioned in the four-years-earlier Vanity Fair profile, too.

Read back-to-back, these profiles suggest a fake, a man who only standout qualities seem to be that he saw how thin the basis for insider status in America’s elite cultural and literary circle is, and ensured he aped the norms and tastes of this circle convincingly enough to become one of its darlings.

Which calls into question the judgement of this circle itself. It’s hard to believe so many smart people were simply repeating a fashionable opinion in praising the man.

While I have since grown up and lost my desire to enter the high-literary world (as well as learned of the many women writers — and organizers — after whom I much prefer to model myself), reading about Wieseltier reminded me of the kernel of truth in what I knew as a teenager: the intellectual world is made for men. Reading of how Wieseltier considered women “second tier to male intellectuals,” of his sequence of “extremely beautiful, alluring girlfriends,” and elsewhere, of how he was “linked to an astonishing array of prominent women,” I can’t help wondering if the bullshit rubrics used by the elites who anointed him “brilliant” are hard-wired to reward men who treat women as disposable, to see in such behavior a reflection of brilliance, or at least, to view a “brilliant” man as enhanced by his ability to behave as Wieseltier did toward women. The remarkably similar allegations against Knight Landesman, Artforum‘s publisher, and Loren Stein, the Paris Review‘s editor in chief, suggest as much.

Ours is a supposed era of sexual freedom. We’re supposed to encourage women to pursue whatever sexual behavior suits them. And while I do, reality is not nearly so straightforward. Women who sleep around like Wieseltier risk having whatever success they achieve attributed to their willingness to “fuck their way to the top” (a charge that, unsurprisingly, comes up precisely zero times in the profiles of Wieseltier; indeed, it’s laughable to imagine such an accusation against a heterosexual man). Moreover, perhaps we should question a culture that so glories in a type of man who, by all looks of it, wielded his reputation as a means to ensure women accepted his abuse. Perhaps we, women, are now under pressure to accept our role as the arm candy of “brilliant” men if we want to get ahead, and perhaps, from the outside, that looks identical to a new sexual freedom for women even as it operates almost identically to the sexism in which our intellectual lineages are steeped.

Anyway, I don’t mean to dismiss women’s agency, or cast aspersions upon anyone in particular — aside from Wieseltier, at whom everyone should feel free to lob as many insults as they want — but the ongoing revelations (or confirmations, depending on how prevalent you thought sexual harassment was prior to last month) of sexual misconduct in elite circles suggest it’s past time to consider the possibility that we aren’t all making choices in a friction-less vacuum. Women, even prestigious women, may be choosing to live as best they can from a constricting set of options, options that tell them — okay, that tell us — to accept terms and standards built for men, even if some women can meet them now too.

///

Julien Baker Believes in God / New Yorker / Rachel Syme

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Somethin’ Slick Goin’ On: The Proletarian Funk of Johnny “Guitar” Watson / Viewpoint / Dominick Knowles

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The Inescapable Fats Domino / New Yorker / Amanda Petrusich

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Letter of Recommendation: Detroit Techno / New York Times / Shuja Haider

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Everything is Embarrassing: On Loving The National / NYLON / Helena Fitzgerald

Having morosely dwelt upon an unpleasant topic above — and, for those who follow my work, here and here and here and here and here — I leave you with five essays about five very different types of music. Happy Halloween, happy fall, don’t get too depressed about everything, it’s just the weather and the news and the poverty making you feel that way, etc.

*I originally wrote this is on November 1, 2017, on my other site, a Patreon, but having shut that site down, I’m re-posting it here for the sake of keeping things all in the same place.

A Harassment-Free Workplace

Sexual harassment is in the news again. This week, the New York Times published an investigation revealing “previously undisclosed allegations against Mr. [Harvey] Weinstein stretching over nearly three decades.” Weinstein, an Oscar-winning movie producer and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, apparently used his position in the entertainment industry to abuse women, overwhelmingly young women new to the movie business.

The story details abusive behavior — such as Weinstein “badgering” women into giving him naked massages or asking if they would watch him shower — that suggest a man who got off not so much on sex as on dominating women who he suspected were powerless to fight back. That he got away with it for decades, and that he is only being outed now, as his power is fading — slowly, to be sure — suggests he was right.

But there’s another thread that comes through, one of women helping other women protect themselves in a situation where the power differential between Weinstein and themselves was staggering. We read of Lauren O’Connor writing a memo denouncing her boss’s conduct. We see Ashley Judd tell the Times reporters, “Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time, and it’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly.” We are informed that “one woman advised a peer to wear a parka when summoned for duty as a layer of protection against unwelcome advances.” And we get anonymous quotes, from women employed or formerly employed by Weinstein, confirming the allegations.

In an era when so many of us know how widespread workplace sexual harassment is, it’s important to take in the details of a rare case of a harasser being outed, publicly and with on-the-record quotes from his accusers. This is the exception to the rule, which is that powerful men like Weinstein get to harass and assault women until they die, no matter how many people in their industries know about it.

But having digested these details, we — or at least those of us concerned with fighting these injustices — arrive at a question: What do we do about it? We live in an era where “feminism … is cool,” at least according to those liberal feminists whose politics fit comfortably with feminism-as-brand, and yet sexual harassment, in the workplace and without, continues unabated.

When the article was published, lots of women took to Twitter to tell their stories of workplace sexual harassment. But the proud feminist tradition of conscious raising — albeit this time in its 2017 form, tweeting — cannot stop workplace sexual harassment. It’s a way to make those few of us unfortunate enough to use Twitter feel less alone, and to educate our male counterparts about the thorny persistence of harassment in our supposed feminist age. But when it comes to stopping that harassment, its effect is negligible at best.

So, again, what can we do to reduce workplace sexual harassment?

To begin answering that, let me start with a few snapshots of my own.

  • Age 17: during my first shift as a waitress, a customer leaves me his number instead of a tip —  I am an embarrassed kid, so I don’t tell anyone
  • Age 20: within my first week of a new job as a barista, one of the coffee shop’s regulars talks to me for the entirety of my lunch break. When I bring it up with my young female manager, she responds, “Oh, I have one of those guys too. Nothing we can do about it. By the way, if the guy who insists on talking to me comes in and asks for me, say I’m busy.”
  • Age 20: I ask a professor for a recommendation to graduate school. He responds by asking me if I have a boyfriend. I do not reply, to that email, or ever again. I do not get into a PhD program that year.
  • Age 21: during my first shift as a hostess at a restaurant, one of the bartenders propositions me multiple times. When I tell the manager, seeking advice, he responds, “Well, you were hired to be looked at.” I walk out mid-dinner rush that same day, and never go back.
  • Age 22: I am a new PhD student. One of the other students informs me to avoid X, a male professor. “He touches the female students he works with, like, a lot.” I change what I plan to focus on in the program, so as to avoid working with him.

What do these stories have in common? Beyond the obvious — they’re all cases of workplace sexual harassment — in each case, I acted alone, and the action I took worsened my life. I walked away from jobs, never to return even for the paycheck I was owed. I reneged on substantial intellectual goals to avoid harassers. I suffered, doubly.

I don’t share these stories for the purpose of consciousness-raising, although if reading them makes you feel less alone, or conveys to you how often workplace sexual harassment happens, good. I write them to show how much we stand to lose by trying to resolve sexual harassment on our own.

Rather than trying to fight back against a harasser on her own, the safest bet for a women is to find a vehicle to fight the issue collectively. Not only can this multiply the power on her side — if she can only do so much on her own, her power multiplies with each colleague who stands beside her — but it protects her. Speaking out about harassment is risky when your job is on the line, but if you speak as a “we,” there is no “I” who can be identified. Sure, if the harasser knows he only harassed me, he will know I am the one who told people. But even then, if my coworkers commit to backing me up, and taking action if I face repercussions for speaking up, it becomes much harder for that harasser to win. He can fire me — or get me fired if he isn’t the boss — but he can’t fire all of us.

The above scenario is a type of collective action, one that is closer to the informal side of the spectrum that runs from informal to formal action: workers confront a harasser, threatening to take action, be it direct action or legal action, if harassment doesn’t end. It’s a step beyond the actions we read of in the Times story, of individual women warning other women of Weinstein’s actions, although the many women quoted or interviewed anonymously about Weinstein are taking informal collective action too, albeit of a type that shields them from the risk of repercussions (I hope). It’s an important step, and I have seen it stop harassment. Workers threatening to walk off the job if one of the bosses doesn’t act on information of sexual harassment can force that boss to act, if solely to keep the shop running smoothly.

But on the other end of the spectrum is an even more effective strategy: formal collective action. When it comes to the workplace, the most common vehicle for this step is a union. Language about “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment is often built into union contracts, providing a clear mandate for workers to act if harassment occurs. No longer are you “a bitch who can’t keep her mouth shut”; in a union, you’re adhering to the language everyone agreed upon.

When I was part of a union organizing drive among graduate students at my university last year, this argument — that a union is our best shot at combating sexual harassment and assault — was the most effective one I had when speaking to other grad students. According to a nationwide survey by the Association of American Universities, 44 percent of female graduate students report having been sexually harassed. 22 percent of female graduate students said this harassment came from a faculty member, while 16 percent said it came from a teacher or adviser. Multiple women, particularly those who work in the hard sciences — where funding comes directly from one faculty member (a PI) who oversees a lab of grad students — confessed horror stories of sexual harassment by their PIs, the stories often prefaced with “I haven’t told anyone else about what’s happening.” Some of these women became our most effective organizers.

And when it came to speaking to their male colleagues, no argument was more persuasive. While an engineering student might not be concerned with his wages (“My stipend’s good, and I’ll be making six figures in no time!”), he almost always could be won to supporting the union when I told him that “some of your female colleagues don’t have it so good, and they need this union.”

While sexual harassment is not a “bread-and-butter” issue in traditional union parlance, the ability of a union to provide a formal collective body that can file grievances over harassment, and promise to back up those experiencing harassment, is an invaluable argument for why union rights are women’s rights (among the many, many arguments for why unions are a feminist issue). Judging by reports from other graduate union campaigns, I’m not the only one who finds this an effective argument.

That power of a supervisor to scare a worker into silence about the harassment she’s experiencing? That exists in every sector, not just academia. For example, a recent survey reveals that 40 percent of female fast food workers experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A staggering number, it is significantly lower than the 70 percent of female restaurant workers Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) reported as experiencing workplace sexual harassment. Importantly, 42 percent of those surveyed in the fast food industry who experience harassment feel forced to accept that harassment because they can’t afford to lose their jobs. More than one-in-five of these women report that, after raising the issue, their employer took negative action, including cutting their hours, changing them to a less desirable schedule, giving them additional duties, and being denied a raise.

In other words, they were punished for speaking up. So it’s no surprise these workers are fighting in ever-greater numbers for not only a raise, but a union. Any of us who want to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace should be fighting for those protections too, no matter what type of work we do.

Note: an abridged version of this essay ran in Jacobin this week. It originated as a paywalled post on my Patreon, but given that I’ve seen union folks, especially those in the grad union movement, sharing this piece as a means to talk about sexual harassment, I’m posting it here so the full version — which has more specifics about grad unions — is accessible to everyone. If you want to support my writing, subscribe here.

Extremely Abbreviated Description of One Female’s Pain

1

Last year, a doctor’s aide took my vitals. I sat at ease in a chair, until she told me matter-of-factly that my heart was beating fast enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.

Had I exerted myself before going to the doctor, she wanted to know. I hadn’t. The hospital where this doctor was located was out of the way, inaccessible by public transit, so I’d taken an uber to the front door. I’d even taken the elevator to the neurology clinic, shamefully choosing not to walk the two flights of stairs from the main entrance.

“No,” I responded.

“You’re lucky we caught this. I’ll have the doctor talk to you right away.”

2

The only reason anyone caught my heart abnormality was because of my headaches. They’re migraines, technically. I’ve always gotten them, at least since I was a little kid. I’d long ago given up on doing anything about them. But after I had one so bad that I fainted and wound up in the hospital with a skull fracture, I was forced to go through the motions of seeking the cause of the pain. I soon gave up on finding the cause – rather, my doctors soon gave up. So I sought medications that might at least relieve the pain. That’s why I was at a neurology clinic getting my vitals checked.

It feels tired to write about being a woman with headaches, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And it is tiring to be a woman with headaches. I am tired of it.

3

I write too often about fracturing my skull. I reference it compulsively. Only when reading Leslie Jamison’s essay on female pain did I admit to myself why. Jamison quotes from a memoir by Lucy Grealy, a woman who had childhood cancer and whose face was disfigured by it, cause for the title of Grealy’s book: Autobiography of a Face. In it, Grealy writes, “I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.”

“Grealy had been craving the identity-locus of damage even before it happened to her; and was happy, as a little girl, when trauma first arrived,” writes Jamison.

For the first few days in the hospital after fracturing my skull, I was torn between fear of dying and self-pity. These are related feelings: self-pity follows from awareness that one is too young to experience fear of dying, and this acknowledgement often strengthens that fear, goading a person to think of all that she will miss should she die.

For me, this manifested as yelling deliriously at a nurse. “You don’t understand, I can’t have a head injury!” I screamed, trying to keep her in my field of vision despite being strapped into a too large neckbrace, which forced me to look straight up at the white ceiling if I wanted to minimize the cutting pain the brace caused as it sliced into my too small, too thin collarbone.

“I finally have a job where I need my brain” I yelled, no longer able to see her.

When the nurse reappeared in my line of vision, I told her to let me check myself out of the emergency room. If I left, I reasoned, the injury would cease to exist. If I was someone not in a hospital, I would no longer be someone who needed to be in a hospital.

I lost consciousness before I could hear her response. Maybe she didn’t respond at all.

I soon acclimated to my new existence as someone confined to a hospital bed, someone who understood how to use a bedpan and who no longer cringed at the needle stuck into her arm every four hours by a blurry amalgam of nurses, made indistinguishable in the darkness of late sterile nights when she, or he, woke me from sleep to prick me for another blood sample. A new feeling came over me, not unconnected to fear or dying or self-pity, but distinct: I felt grateful. Something very bad had happened to me, something no one could deny was terrible. I had a traumatic brain injury. I might not recover. The doctors told me I had a brain hemorrhage. They told me that my spinal fluid could flood the space between my spinal cord and my skull, and that this could kill me.

I did not cease to fear for my life, or wish I hadn’t gotten hurt. But given that I had, I felt precisely what Grealy felt. I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.

4

I know better than that. I know I should be what Jamison calls a “post-wounded” woman. “Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood,” she writes, and it’s true.  I fear my parents will read this essay and misunderstand me. That they’ll be hurt, or horrified, because they haven’t read Jamison’s essay, or think my excitement about being an authentically unwell, tragic woman compares in magnitude to my resentment and self-pity about my health. It doesn’t.

And yet…

And yet, I have a new wound; one I could be accused of choosing to prolong for the sake of pity. Ever since fracturing my skull, I’ve become paralyzed at the thought of making an appointment with a new doctor, or keeping up with the old.

I managed it for a year or two. I saw the neurologist, who gave me three different sets of pills for my headaches. I saw the ENT specialist, who explained to me that while I might never get my sense of smell back – a loss that came from a piece of my skull slicing through the nerve endings that translate odor into scent – I might. He wouldn’t say anything more definitive, surely fearing litigation. I saw a therapist, who saw a young woman so wounded as to be unfixable, so she gave me some pills, and I stopped seeing her.  I saw a specialist who was supposed to tell me why I felt dehydrated all the time, which, combined with the migraine, had caused me to faint in the first place. He cut open my lip and sewed it together again, testing for Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that was the only explanation he could think of for my dehydration. I can still feel the stitches through my face. When he told me I’d tested negative, I saw someone else, who gave me pills to take three times a day, pills meant to stimulate saliva so my teeth wouldn’t decay, the enamel eroding and rotting the bone at an accelerated rate. I saw a dentist, who saw a thin girl with no enamel left on her teeth. “Are you bulimic,” she asked, adding that repeated exposure to stomach acid erodes one’s teeth. Even when I explained my condition, she seemed to still see a bulimic. I saw my new primary care physician, who helped me coordinate all these doctors, until she didn’t.

So now, I see no one. For the most part, this is okay. But when it comes to the heart abnormality the neurologist found, I never saw a cardiologist. It was over a year ago. I can’t seem to make myself schedule an appointment. When an ex saw me continue putting off the call that could have gotten me an appointment, he first tried to help. Then he gave up. We broke up, with him telling me to “see the doctors already, I don’t understand what is so hard about that.” I told him I would.

When I told the guy I see – “I wouldn’t call us ‘dating,'” he once told me, so I don’t – that it’s been over a year since a nurse discovered my heart abnormality, he told me I should see the doctor. I didn’t respond.

Jamison would probably add me to her cases of women dwelling in woundedness. She would be right. But I’d add – and so would she – that it’s more complicated than that.


Note: I’ll incorporate this essay into a longer piece elsewhere, but I wanted to share it as is in the meantime.

 

personal note

 

These days, it’s rare I write about myself for the hell of it, but an uncharacteristically-sincere feeling of gratitude leaves me wanting to share an update.

I start my third year of my PhD program this week. Despite being unwaveringly a words, not numbers, person, I’m taking quantitative methods classes in hopes of maybe being employable someday. That means I’ll be spending a lot of time learning R and GIS along with TA’ing a statistics class. None of this is what I do for my own research, and none of it comes easy, so it’ll be a tough few months.

I’m doing political work too! It takes up a lot of energy and is an insane time commitment. But it’s good work, the slow and methodical type that stays after you leave and teaches you a lot in the process. I’m thrilled to be doing it.

I also just moved into a new apartment. After years of relying on buses, I feel like I won the lottery. There’s good mexican food and a coffee shop and bars, all nearby! I can walk places, and it’s a quick train ride to work. While I’m still poor as hell, my quality of life has gone way up and it’s hard to believe life can be so good.

Finally, it’s been a year since I decided to Figure Out How to Write. And man, if I’m being honest, I hustled: despite being in grad school and having all the commitments that come with that, I’ve gotten published a few places, learned how to pitch and write stories – unevenly, but apparently well enough – and became colleagues and friends with some great writers.

The political work is time-consuming enough to necessitate I take a break from non-academic writing (at least in theory; we’ll see if I stick to that), so bear with me if I write less.

It may sound melodramatic, but my life’s better than anything I could have hoped for, or even imagined, a few years ago. After years spent studying all sorts of subjects on my own – seriously, that’s why my library’s so sprawling – in an attempt to feel confident enough to hold onto my own opinions, I’m finally starting to feel sure of myself. I’ve got more friends and support than I know what to do with. Some of you are intimidatingly brilliant and inspiring. And I’d like to think that I’m slowly starting to pull my weight.

An Amazing True Story for Mother’s Day

filler

When I was a little kid, I went to a county fair-type Halloween festival in Pittsburgh. There were haunted houses, fried foods, games, and sideshow acts.

One such act was a “half man, half gorilla.” He started the show as a man but turned into a gorilla by the end.

Being a tiny jerk of a human, I hid in the pavilion after one of his performances and saw him change out of the gorilla costume. Apprised of the truth about this half man, half gorilla, that he was a fake, I stuck around for his next performance and right at the moment of the big reveal – when he turned into the gorilla – I yelled out from near the exit “It’s a costume!”

For whatever reason – likely something to do with the fact that this guy’s job was to be a gorilla-human at a Pittsburgh sideshow – he snapped. He jumped off the stage and began running straight at me in full gorilla costume.

I booked it, turning around and running out into the fairgrounds. He kept chasing me. I don’t like to think too much about what his endgame was if he caught me, but we ran around and around the grounds, eventually coming to circle Ivan the Impaler’s stage, another sideshow act (and local weird artist) in which Ivan hammered objects up his nose. We ran in circles, with the man picking up ground on me.

By this point, I began screaming my parents names and fortunately, fans of Ivan’s that they were, they weren’t far away and sprang into action to stop the grown man trying to kill their daughter.

Timing things as only my mother (and maybe some NFL players) can, my mom managed to launch herself into the gorilla man at just the right moment, tackling him to the ground.

I don’t remember what happened after that, but I think we just left the fair. My parents probably didn’t blame the guy for snapping, being small-time artists themselves who know how short a fuse a bad performance or hostile audience can leave you with.

My mom and I have had a rocky relationship at times but today, on Mother’s Day, I’d be remiss to deny just how special she is. And knowing as I do how consistently she reads this blog, I’ll end by saying: hi mom, happy Mother’s Day.

We’re All Poor So Let’s At Least Make Health Care a Right

healthcare

This is the bill for my hospital stay after I fractured my skull two years ago. Had I not had been young enough to be covered by my parent’s health insurance, I’d have been responsible for nearly $40k – and that’s ignoring other bills, like the $2k charge for the fifteen minute ambulance ride to the hospital.

In the two weeks since I wrote about the aftermath of that injury, one of my doctors caught a new problem: a fucking heart problem, of all things.

He added one more prescription to the eight on file for me at CVS. The pills stack up on the bureau in my room. They stack up because I don’t take them as consistently as I’m supposed to. Because some of them have weird side effects. Because a dozen pills a day is a lot to remember.

Most of the prescriptions have a minor price tag, a few dollars mysteriously not covered by my health insurance. $5, $10, $15. Nothing outlandish, but it adds up.

It’s lucky this doctor caught the heart problem. A tell tale sign showed up when his assistant took my vitals. I’d never have brought it up otherwise – the occasional racing heart, shortness of breath, full body weakness. It’s the least of my problems.

Before I left, I had my co-pay – $40 this time – for seeing this doctor, one of the best neurologists in one of the best medical systems in the country. $40 might seem like nothing in comparison to all that…and yet, I have health insurance. In the context of monthly visits to specialists, co-pays compete with groceries. And that’s with health insurance.

Without it? Who knows what these dozen daily pills cost. And were I still making as little as I used to, I doubt I’d have made that $40 appointment. On minimum wage, no one would have caught my heart problem.

We need to demand a system of health care that won’t force me and millions of others facing the same grinding combination of poverty and a failing body to cold quit prescriptions and avoid doctors as soon as we find ourselves without decent health insurance and maybe even when we have it. To those who mealy-mouth responses about realism and earning what should be a right, people like Hillary Clinton among others, I’d like to force them to watch millions of lives fall apart in the absence of free access to doctors.

And if we don’t make health care a right? Well, maybe I should hold onto those extra pills accumulating in my room – consider it a stockpile for a darker future.