Historical Antecedents of the Quaranteam

My family (my husband, daughter, and I) recently decided to invite another family to be part of our quarantine bubble, or Quaranteam. Texas is sucking mightily at flattening the curve (All Hail the Ravening EconoBeast), and most of us have pulled our kids out of the summer camps that remain, expecting to have a long, hot, boring, socially distant summer. The family we teamed up with is compatible in lots of ways: two kids that my kid went to preschool with, the older of whom is close in age, working from home/staying home parents, and a commitment to minimal exposure to COVID-19 through quarantine, the use of masks, grocery delivery, etc. We’ve hung out a lot over the last few years because it helped wear out our kids and gave us other interesting grownups to talk to and they are fantastic humans. We are politically compatible and share interests in nerd things. I’ve also hung out with both partners individually doing stuff like lunch or gaming. We all get along pretty well. It’s no small feat to find a group of seven humans who can stand each other most of the time. Sometimes our kids get into it, as kids do, but it works pretty well.

It was a huge relief to be near other people when we finally took the plunge. Whatever mental or physical deficiency (probably both) comes from not being able to be with your people was mightily assuaged just by an afternoon of hanging out and letting our kids play. We fist bumped. The kids hugged. Seeing my only child get her first hugs from other kids in forever weeks made me a little verklempt.

So I was explaining it to my therapist, and I kept coming up with this seemingly weird parallel. When I was 17, I moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I got two degrees and worked while flying around for auditions, so I was there for about seven years in all. I lived there from 1989-1996, during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Nobody close to me died, but people very close to people close to me did. A lot. Sex was dangerous. San Francisco is also a famously sex-positive, kink-friendly city that was an LGBTQ haven in a still homophobic country.

The upside of this is that sex was practiced frequently, enthusiastically, creatively, and very carefully negotiated in advance to ensure minimal risk. Everyone knew someone with HIV. Didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, in a city where those lines were super blurry to begin with, it was common courtesy to 1) disclose your sexual activities with prospective new partners, 2) discuss types of protection (and/or contraception if pregnancy was a possibility), and 3) disclose the last time you were tested or get tested before engaging with a new partner, even a casual one. There was a hotline you could call for free to find out the latest information on transmission and prevention. There was (is) a fantastic store for books, toys, videos, cheap high quality condoms and other protectives that was laid out like a clean well lit book store and not a creepy sex shop. Absent was the furtive, guilty, ignorant behavior often associated with sex, and sadly, still very much present in states where sex-ed is banned or limited to abstinence “education.” Yes those are snarky quotes.

So anyway, here are the weird parallels. We are trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones from a debilitating and potentially fatal disease. This is drastically changing our behavior patterns. When we didn’t understand how HIV was spread (and not spread) abstinence was the only safe option. Just as quarantine is the only safe option when we can no longer control the spread of COVID-19. We still have human needs for connection and proximity, which come into conflict with our desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Hence, we deliberately, carefully, negotiate terms of engagement in a way that will hopefully carry minimum risk and maximum gratification. Same/Same. Ish.

The other parallels are much darker. Spread of HIV among heterosexual populations where discussing sex and prevention is taboo is still a problem, especially in places where effective treatment is too expensive or unavailable. Such is the case with COVID-19. But instead of people half way across the world being in danger, it’s us. Our government has utterly failed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, and the ignorance of much of our population, combined with structural inequality that puts low wage workers at much higher risk with little power to control their levels of exposure. Others refuse to believe that a virus is more powerful than they and act as if there is no danger. All of these issues exponentially increase the likelihood of infection for everyone else. In the 90s, if nothing else, we could stop having sex. But we can’t stop breathing, or eating, or working, and those activities or the activities that enable them put us and our loved ones at risk.

So I am happy to have some more people to hang out with and practice safe quarantining (as safe as we can be with an airborne pathogen), but I continue to be concerned about the misinformation and blatant idiocy that is keeping this disease active and dangerous. We are so lucky to have compatible friends and jobs where we can quarantine easily. We are also the recipients of tremendous unearned privilege. As my mental health improves, I wonder how I can compensate for this in some way. For those of you similarly safe – respect safe distance from others. Tip the crap out of delivery people. Speak loudly (and financially) in support of higher wages and safe working conditions for the people keeping our children fed. Don’t forget that the ability to quarantine safely is anything but universal. And just as the AIDS crisis of the 1990s was not the fault of the victims, but of a negligent government, your ability to avoid infection now doesn’t mean that you have done anything special to deserve it.

Live(ish) blogging SXSW: Keynote with Cory Booker

I’m co-hosting a meetup at SXSW Interactive on behalf of Pantsuit Republic Texas, who I volunteer with as a digital psychology and content consultant. Lucky me, I get a platinum pass, which means I can go to everything I can get to – music, technology, film, and everything in between. It’s kind of a cross between a conference and a festival on steroids. The last time I went was 2004.

This morning I picked up my badge and hightailed it to the first major speaker – Senator Cory Booker.

I’ve been aware of him for a while, though not as long as I should have been. He’s been an outspoken opponent of legislation and appointments that infringe on human rights. He’s also a straight up mensch.

He started with an impassioned speech about love. He pointed out that tolerance is a lame goal, because we tolerate a cold. Loving our country, loving the children of others, loving those with whom we disagree is the path to healing.

Damn.

He told a story about an activist who he worked with in the projects of Newark. An older black man who lived in poverty, but was totally present for the people he was trying to help. He was a mentor for Booker. Booker said that his mentor lost his sight as he aged. When he would visit him in the rest home, he’d say, “Hey, it’s Cory” and his mentor would say, “I see you.” Those words, along with “I love you” were his last words to Booker.

Booker seems incredibly present. He sees all the problems, all the crap going on, but he also sees it in the larger picture of human history and human nature. I found what he said really affirming.

I’ve had a hard time in life at times. I struggle. I’m also crazy privileged, which can lead to guilt over not doing enough. But something in what he said affirmed my stubborn need to see the glass as half full. No matter how shitty things seem to be, I can usually turn it around to something hopeful. Yes, the internet is a cesspool, but I found a way to study the cesspool and find evidence that people are not as broken as they seem. I’m attracted to learning about the way people grow from breaking, rather than why they break and how to fix them.

The other thing Booker said that I found inspiring was in answer to a question I posed (we could pose questions online through an app and then he read them on a teleprompter or something). I asked how to turn digital activism into real world activism. And instead of talking about calling senators and marching, he talked about community service. It really struck me. I feel like I’m not doing enough as an activist, which is partially from the knowledge that what I do won’t stem the tide right now. But I know from my teaching that I can make a huge difference in one person’s life, and that’s real.

So how can I take those skills and use them more in the community? What can I do that is small and simple and makes a real difference in a person‘s life instead of worrying about the big political picture? Not that political activism isn’t important, but Booker doesn’t see a difference between political activism and community service. He’s got a point.

The Long Game

This is going to be a long, difficult few (I hope) years. If, like me, you are committed to human rights, equality, compassion, scientific advancement, and social healing, we need to take very, very good care of our bodies, minds, and spirits if we are to persevere.

There are many articles on activism burnout, activist self-care, and internet induced trauma or stress. I’ve included some links at the bottom*. However,  I have a few of my own nuggets to offer.

*More good articles keep coming out, so I’m going to be updating this periodically.

Mental Health Care
For many of us, current events are seriously triggering. They may bring up traumatic events from our past or just scare the bejeezus out of us, affecting our physical and mental health. Either way, this creates a lot of strain on the psyche. If you’re feeling extra stressed out, or being extra grouchy to your loved ones, consider finding a therapist.

Therapy doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does take time and commitment. Good therapists are worth the cost, but they also often supervise people who are fulfilling their hours for licensing. The soon-to-be-licensees charge far less than fully licensed therapists, and are usually compassionate, highly competent people.  Google stuff like “sliding scale therapy my area” and see what comes up. Or, ask your friends for referrals. If your bestie sees a full price therapist he or she loves, said therapist may have people he or she supervises and recommends. If you’ve never had therapy, it can seem daunting. But trust your gut, and audition those shrinks until you find one you feel safe and comfortable with.

If you already have a therapist, great! Still feeling extra wiggy? You might consider a talk therapy group. They are supervised by a licensed therapist and have different dynamics than individual therapy. It might be your cup of tea. I find a combination of both works best – I see my individual therapist twice a month and attend group therapy weekly. If I’m having a rough time, I increase the frequency of the individual therapy.

In times of stress, the line between body and mind (which isn’t really there in the first place) becomes blurred. Our stress affects our body. Our tired bodies increase our stress. I’ll warrant you already know to eat, move, and rest. But a relaxed body can only do so much under a constant barrage of psychological pressure. Which leads me to,

Mental Hygiene in the Internet Age
Yes, you’ve read lots of listcicles about how not to explode your brain on the internet. Many of them are quite good. I’d like to talk a bit about what goes on in your body and mind when you get too wrapped up in the conversations and clickbait.

When people get really stressed out or traumatized, they can experience dissociation. This is a sense of being outside one’s body, or detached from an overwhelming emotion or experience.  When we experience this in proximity to another person, we may become aware that we are freaking out because we see some reflection of our reaction in the other. We may have some sense that our body isn’t functioning normally – we need to sit down, or our hands shake. But when it happens on the internet, we may not notice the physical symptoms. You know how sometimes you get so wrapped up in whatever you’re doing on your computer that you forget to stretch, or pee, or eat? It’s like that, but with feelings. We may not notice that we’re experiencing and acting on strong emotions until later.

Before I started my dissertation, I took a class in phenomenology and writing. The simple definition for phenomenology is the study of a phenomenon through the experience of the subject. So, since I was interested in aggression, I studied my own experience of it as both an aggressor and target. I learned that aggression is very physical. When I explored my strongest memories of feeling aggression or having it directed at me, the memories were mainly of physical sensations. Hot sensations if I was angry. Cold sensations if someone attacked me. All emotions have some physical sensation associated with them, which may be different for each person. But anger is especially vivid.

And then I tried to figure out how it felt when I was engaged in conflict on the internet. I realized that I tuned out my physical sensations when I was online (even think about the nature of that phrase – on line. Like we are somewhere else) and by extension, my emotions. I had to start training myself to pay close attention to how my body felt when I was involved in intense online conversations, or reading articles that brought up strong emotions.

I was hyper-aware of this when I was working on my dissertation research. (Just a quick reminder – my dissertation data was comment threads on YouTube and other social media outlets. Imagine.) I created a bunch of rules for myself that I still try to follow.

  • Don’t read the comments after 6pm
  • Don’t read the news after 6pm
  • Avoid reading triggering stuff first thing in the morning (I’m looking at you, Facebook)
  • Get enough sleep and food if I’m going to be engaging with difficult material
  • Spend time outside

Some of this may fit with the listsicles, but I do it for very specific reasons: I can’t engage with my data in a rigorous way if I’m triggered. If I’m feeling strong fear, anger, or conflicting feelings, I can’t observe myself very well, let alone others. I think this applies to activism as well. I can’t call my senators, or try to engage in dialogue with someone I disagree with, if I’m freaky. Freaky = stressed out, tired, fearful, or angry.

Summary: The body will always tell us where we’re screwing up. The internet tends to temporarily deafen us to our bodies.

Your list will fit your schedule and biorhythms. I tend to get most anxious at night, so I try to avoid fear inducing stuff when it is dark. I also have a young kid, so I have to cram my sleep into the hours before 6am. (Terrifying news tends to inhibit sleep.) Left to my own devices, I’d sleep different hours. Both of these things inform what kind of hygiene I impose on my activism, online and otherwise.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What time of day am I most likely to be anxious?
  2. When am I calmest or most energetic?
  3. What websites do I feel relaxed after reading?
  4. What websites do I feel anxious after reading?
  5. What kind of physical activities do I like to engage in?
  6. What helps me feel grounded and peaceful?

After answering these questions, consider how you normally spend your day, and if it minimizes the time you feel unstressed, or maximizes the time you spend feeling anxious or unhappy.

I am not suggesting that we avoid all pain or stress. First, that’s impossible. Second, it’s still impossible. But we must be present in our lives, to ourselves, and to our loved ones in order to spend our energy wisely in activism. So consider stepping away from that looming conflict on Facebook and spend some time outside instead. You will have more energy and focus, and we need you for the fight ahead.

Resources:
Activist Burnout Is Real – And You Probably Need to Read These 4 Ways to Manage It
How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind
What Kind of Activist Are You? Free Five Minute Journaling Exercise!
How To Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed By Your Newsfeed