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Mentally Healthier Part II: Rocky Mountain Low Edition

Sometimes you feel like the most miserable person in one of the statistically happiest places in the country, and you realize that’s more than okay.

When I last posted about my mental health (or lack thereof), I had just relocated to Boulder, CO to begin pursuing my doctorate in media studies. I moved to Boulder with my husband sight unseen, and I knew the risk involved. Despite this, I wasn’t too nervous because I had heard only amazing things about Boulder.

“It’s so beautiful!”

“Everyone loves it!”

“It’s sooo much better than Buffalo!”

And yes, upon arrival, I did notice that the Rocky Mountains create a lovely backdrop. In fact, the mountains and the Colorado sky are two of my favorite things. However, I never considered that the seemingly beloved city of Boulder might not be the place for me. To provide a little bit of background: I’m from Buffalo, and I love my Rust Belt paradise. It’s true that the lack of sun in the winter is soul crushing. I have had many a dark day in Buffalo in January. (Wait! Is that the sun??!!!) I’m also acutely aware that my assessment is inherently biased because Buffalo is home (cue Dorothy in the ruby slippers). I also relocated because my husband and I were running out of economic opportunities, and Boulder was the only place in the country where we both could secure funding for doctoral programs in our specific fields. I’m incredibly grateful that we both were presented with these opportunities, and I’m in no way bemoaning what brought us to Boulder. If anything, my work is one of the better things I have going for me, aside from my physical health (***knock on wood***). And Netflix. Damn that shit never gets old! Can you believe how affordable and convenient it is?! It makes my area of study a hell of a lot easier as well. But I digress…why did I have such a hard time acclimating to a place where it’s sunny 300 days per year? Shit, I just learned that claim is a myth too.

 In essence, I arrived in Boulder to see a lot of corporate aesthetics (plazas, plazas, and more plazas!), and a sort of suffocating conformity I can’t really put my finger on. Because CO legalized recreational marijuana use this past January—a measure I completely and unabashedly support—one might assume that Boulder is “liberal” and “open-minded.” I don’t want to rant about all the things that irritate me about Boulder because honestly, no one likes reading someone else’s bitching. But I will say that it’s incredibly expensive with the median home price hovering around $500,000. Furthermore, to say that Boulder “lacks diversity” is an understatement. I don’t just stress the importance of diversity in all forms (not only racially and ethnically) as a sort of mindless platitude. In all sincerity, I think it’s essential to be exposed to all different types of people to build empathy and compassion for those who are unlike oneself. It’s also a hell of a lot less boring. 

In short, Boulder is a college town with very affluent and mostly white students who like to ski. And smoke weed. And yuppies with kids who also like to ski and smoke weed. Again, not that there is anything wrong with those two activities. I sincerely hope recreational marijuana use becomes legal everywhere. Seriously, skiing is FAR MORE DANGEROUS. And yet no one gets thrown in prison for skiing…

So yes, it can be a tough place to live if you lack economic privilege and don’t embody the standard Boulder characteristics (see definition of Trustafarian). I also have never skied. We had no money for such things when I was a wee one. I suppose I could have started as an adult, but that shit is fucking terrifying. Plain and simple: I find life perilous enough without hurling myself down a mountain (or even a more modest hill). It’s not that anyone is outright hostile in Boulder…it’s actually the sort of faux friendliness that gets to me. Albeit I’m a little more cantankerous than most. I’m more than willing to admit that I’m a large part of the problem in terms of my discontent, but I think there’s more to it in terms of the culture in Boulder. In other words, what is fundamentally exclusionary about Boulder?

When you were born and raised in the City of No Illusions, Boulder can just rub you the wrong way. For example, one night I was at a local pub, bemoaning the aggressive enforcement of last call, as the staff began pulling drinks at 1:45. In defense of the bars, I guess the alcohol regulations are pretty draconian. I was talking to a girl from Boulder, and I began regaling her with tales of Buffalo’s notorious 4 am last call. She then responded with one of the more bizarre, nonsensical comments I have ever heard: “Well, if they kept the bars open here till 4 am, then all the homeless people would try to come in and drink.” I paused for a few seconds. I talk a lot and fast, so this was unusual. I truly didn’t know how to reply to that. Boulder’s “bourgeois utopia” façade is occasionally disrupted by the presence of homeless people. Would Boulder’s homeless suddenly try to come in for a drink if the bars remained open passed 2 am? And more important, so the fuck what if they did? Because I hail from the third poorest city in the country, her comment was all the more disquieting. Does she think the homeless will overrun the bars like mindless beer zombies? I’m pretty sure most bar patrons are already mindless beer zombies—myself included on occasion. I won’t recount the remainder of the conversation because it just isn’t worth retelling. This is just one anecdote, but I think it speaks volumes about the culture in Boulder.

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat as a Boulder-hater, I’m just expressing that Boulder is not the place for me. I know the kind of IRE people direct at Buffalo…even people who have never been there. Buffalo has its fair share of problems, including its poverty rate and that it remains one of the nation’s most racially segregated cities. Maybe I just prefer that Buffalo leaves its skeletons on the front lawn, whereas Boulder keeps them neatly tucked away for PR purposes. 

To be clear, it wasn’t just Boulder itself that caused me to have marked increases in depression and anxiety. I moved nearly 1,500 miles away from my home and support network. It’s just not easy for anyone, especially if you already struggle with anxiety and depression. It just adds insult to injury when you feel like you’re in a place where you don’t fit. So rather than panic (well, I have panic attacks pretty frequently anyway), I simply realized that this is all temporary. It sucks, but it’s temporary. There are times when I will be anxious, miserable, and depressed. There are times when I will be relatively content,  and dare I say, “happy”. My only hope is that the latter condition becomes more common. I’m working on it.

But I think it’s also important to think about the kinds of environments where we can reside that can help lessen the existential angst and plain old drudgery of everyday life. Boulder isn’t for me, so I’m fortunate that Denver is more affordable and only 35 minutes away. I acknowledge that I’m truly lucky to even have the ability to relocate. Denver certainly ain’t perfect either, but it’s definitely more perfect for me and my husband. I’ll also be a little more used to things this time around, as I was lucky enough to journey home this summer to recharge with family and friends. 

I’m just glad that like my hometown, I have no illusions…at least about what it takes to be mentally healthier. 



Mentally Healthier

Mental health: It’s a topic that’s complex and fraught with stigma. Or I guess I should say a lack of mental health is what is stigmatized.

In my 26 years, if there’s at least one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everyone is out of their mind to varying degrees. Oh, what’s that? You think you know someone who is totally healthy and balanced? No, that person is likely just very adept at hiding the batshit crazy thoughts clamoring around in their skull. I cannot say enough just how relieved I am that no one can read my mind. The anxiety, the paranoia, the self-loathing…it’s weirdly always with me at least on a subconscious level. It sounds extreme, but it’s really not all that bad. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones.

To be honest, how could we all not be a little crazy in a world like this? In a universe like this? I’m gonna assume that if there’s intelligent life in a distant galaxy that they probably don’t have their shit together either.  You all live in this world, and you know what I’m talking about. The pain, the suffering, the injustice, the lack of control…it plagues me just as much as anyone. And you can’t fix it. You can win some victories here and there, perhaps both personal and societal with a little organizing, but you can’t eliminate all the inclement weather, all the accidents, all the sociopaths, and all the injustice in one fell swoop. Or even several fell swoops. Or a million. However, it’s important to appreciate the victories when you get them. You just can’t rely on them to keep you grounded all the time.  

I think it’s important to disclose a little bit about some of my own mental health issues, if for no other reason than to help contribute to there being fewer stigmas about it. Because let’s make one thing clear: If you seek professional help for your mental health issues, you are NOT weak. You are actually exhibiting strength. You are proving that you are strong enough to combat social pressures that encourage you to suffer in silence. I stayed silent for way too long, and it did nothing but create unnecessary pain for myself and those closest to me.

I feel for men in this regard given how masculinity is constructed in our society, and the pressure to be tough and never show vulnerability makes this especially difficult. Even for me, I always wanted to be as tough as men to prove myself. Although I’m a heteronormative woman, I perceived that there was power in “acting like a man” in certain aspects. (Daring to violate gender norms is a delicate balance, and definitely worthy of a whole other discussion.) To this day, I still catch myself sometimes saying: “Don’t be a pussy, Shannon.” I literally apply a gendered insult to myself…yikes!

I’ve been anxious my entire life, but when I was in my early 20s, my standard anxiety became exacerbated with severe panic attacks (“Holy Shit I’m gonna die! Like right now, as I’m driving this here Ford Focus, I’m about to die!”) and sporadic episodes of depression. Generalized anxiety was something I knew well, and was almost comfortable with. I had learned how to channel it in ways that were productive. If not for some degree of anxiety, I would literally never get anything done. However, I had never really addressed that my anxiety was a problem. And by anxiety, I don’t mean that I was anxious for any particular reason. I, of course, was great at finding reasons to be anxious and still am. Within a single hour, I could manage to find time to worry about having offended a family member, my risk of developing cancer, my career, the chances of an asteroid striking the Earth, how to solve the economic crisis, and my ultimate mortality. Even without my mind running through all these scenarios and problems, most days, I just felt inexplicably anxious.

I usually dealt with it by finding distractions, but the prevailing anxiety proved to be exhausting. As with anything, it had to get bad enough before I finally got help. The panic attacks, which would literally hit me out of nowhere, made it incredibly difficult to function. It’s not like you could say: “Sorry I was late for class today. I literally thought I was dying as I was sitting at a red light on the way here.” Panic attacks are strange. It still amazes me that my body can start reacting as though I’m about to get hit by a bus for no apparent reason. Rapid breathing, sweating, dizziness and numbness in my extremities…I suppose you could venture over to WebMD if you’re particularly curious. I still get them on occasion, and I have my own mantras and breathing exercises I employ to get through them.

The panic attacks, although shitty, were still in line with my proclivity toward angst. However, what really tripped me up was developing depression for the first time. I felt like with anxiety I could distract myself and find ways to be productive: Write a blog, clean my apartment, spend time with friends, etc. With depression, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. I would just be sitting at my desk at work sometimes and boom—water works for no (obvious) reason. I was lucky in that my depressive episodes never lasted more than a day or so. The other kicker was suicidal ideation. The irony there being that my anxiety predominantly relates to my own demise. How was it that I, with my very open and oft-expressed fear of death, could think about killing myself? This was when I knew I couldn’t put off getting help any longer.

I remember the first time I finally got up the nerve to call and make a therapy appointment. I was lucky enough to still be on my parents’ health insurance, so I figured it was a good idea to take advantage while I could. When the receptionist answered with her nasally Long Island accent, I remember my voice was shaking as I asked to make an appointment.

“What seems to be the nature of your problem?” she said mechanically.

I understood it was a question she had to ask, but when you have to put what’s “wrong” with you into a few sentences, it can seem a bit awkward and overwhelming.

“Um…well I have anxiety and depression…with like, occasional suicidal ideation,” I squeaked out nervously.

“Well, we’re all booked up for at least two months…how is December for you?”

Frustrated, I took this an opportunity to back out. I was already so uncomfortable with the idea, I jumped at an excuse.

“Um…you know what, I think I’ll call you back.”

“Okay, well if you’re thinking about harming yourself or others, please call crisis services at…” she droned on robotically.

So because I was unwilling to wait a bit for an appointment, I put myself through months and months of more agony. About nine months later, I called the same office (it was in walking distance from my home), and they had an appointment within about a month. I didn’t back out this time, and it was literally one of the best things I ever did with my life.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but it’s incredibly beneficial to talk through your problems with a highly qualified stranger. Not every therapist is perfect for sure, and it can take some time to find the right fit. But despite the work involved, it’s better than just staying on the same road that will only cause more harm to yourself and others.

So I wouldn’t say that I’ve somehow achieved optimal mental health…I’m not even quite sure if that’s totally possible. I would say that I am healthier, and that my quality of life has improved as a result. I can only hope that one day the stigma will end, and posts like this will be unnecessary. It’s hard for me, as I still experience apprehension in sharing my story. Either way, I hope maybe someone can find this comforting. Because if you’re on this planet, you’re certainly not alone in how you feel. 




Dying Laughing

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” –Ben Franklin

I can assure you, I find absolutely nothing funny about taxes. Get a convo going with me about regressive taxation, and you’ll witness nothing but wailing and gnashing of teeth. I take taxes very fucking seriously, and yet somehow, I’m still fun at parties. I suppose booze helps, for which yes, I pay my fair share of taxes. The cycle of rage over economic inequality continues…

That being said, how is it that I manage to enjoy a disproportionate amount of laughter in relation to life’s other inevitability?  Yes, that’s right, I often laugh about the great equalizer: death. It’s my way of coping. I suppose it’s an old habit I learned long ago, as death visits my large Irish Catholic family with great frequency. You think the Kennedys have a lock on tragedy? Pssh! You should see what those of us without money and glamour have to go through!

Because there’s nothing anyone can do about death, I was always taught to laugh about it, or at the very least, help the deceased live on through telling funny stories. That doesn’t mean I’m somehow less affected by grief. Nor does it mean there is a “right” way of coping. I suppose my laughter in relation to the deceased may strike some as insensitive or odd, but I sure as hell hope people are laughing when I die. Seriously, my wake better be hilarious…

I often feel that mainstream U.S. culture leaves us greatly lacking when it comes to processing death. Although death stalks our news cycle in a way that can make you feel like the Grim Reaper is your evening news anchor (“If it bleeds, it leads!”), our society seldom aids us in developing the tools for how to confront and accept that our life will come to an end.

Case in point, Salon columnist Mary Elizabeth Williams recently pointed out that cancer patients like her (Williams has metastatic, Stage 4 melanoma) are often ignored when it comes to mainstream discussions about the disease. As Williams explains, metastatic cancer patients “… don’t follow the tidy, cheerful narrative. They don’t necessarily fit the inspirational survivor mold.” Therefore, we pretend they don’t exist.

Is it that difficult to recognize that a significant portion of cancer patients will not survive for very long? Does pretending like it won’t lead to death make us think that it won’t happen? If we feel like we can’t discuss death, then we certainly can’t accept it.

It’s important for the dying to feel like they can talk about it. People think they’re being polite if they say to someone near the end: “You’re gonna beat this!” I know it can be very difficult to give up hope completely, but if the prognosis is abundantly clear, it may make the person feel isolated. Even in speaking with octogenarians over the years, I always reminded myself to make them feel comfortable if they brought up their  approaching demise. Not that they will necessarily die tomorrow or even in the next 10 years, but it’s critical to give people the space to express themselves about the inevitable.

I remember when my elderly father-in-law once mentioned his death, a family member quickly interjected: “Oh, you’ll live to be 100!” Now, knowing him, he just might. But then again, he might not. If he’s lucky enough, he’ll hopefully maintain a good quality of life in his remaining years. If you ask me, quality of life and comfort toward the end is as important as anything. Either way, the well-intentioned interjection shut him right down. The message was clear: “You talking about your own death makes me uncomfortable.”

Naturally, we’re uncomfortable discussing death because we have been taught to avoid the subject—to fear it, to deny it. However, for those who have to face it, pretending like the inevitable is avoidable just makes matters worse. If someone feels comfortable speaking about their own death, we should acknowledge their courage. The elderly and the dying know very well that their loved ones are nervous and apprehensive about discussing it. This further reinforces the dire need to give them the space to broach the topic. Fight that urge to reassure them that everything is going to be okay. Let them tell you how much they think it sucks that they have to part ways with this world. Agree with them! Try your best to empathize! It’s not about having the “right” response; it’s about just letting them speak.

I’m not sitting here pretending as though I’m immune from fear of death. In fact, it’s always bizarrely simmering in my subconscious. The reason I know this is because as a sufferer of night terrors, I often wake up with what I can only describe as an acute awareness, and a great dissatisfaction, with the fact that I have to die. This was a crippling anxiety at first—just ask my poor husband. But now, as panic jerks me awake within the first hour of sleep a couple of times per week, I just have to laugh it off. When I tell people my death-oriented night terrors are this frequent, they’re often alarmed for me. I understand, but since I always manage to lull myself back to sleep, they’re really more of a nuisance than anything. I mean, it is kind of funny if you think about it. I may as well laugh about my fear of death than worry about my fear of it.

Despite all this, I know I will never beat my fear of death. I think I have accepted it though. Perhaps that’s easy for me to say now at 26 and in good health (**knock on wood**). Seriously, I’ve been worried about jinxing myself with this post. Did I mention I’m Irish?

When the time does come, I know with certainty that I will want to talk about it. To be clear, I will need to talk about it, and of course, laugh about it. I can only hope that my loved ones can combat their social and cultural instincts, and accept my death with a few laughs right along with me. 




The Upside of the Downside

***I wrote this over a month ago, but never bothered posting. No better time than now I guess.***

I’ve always been an anxious person. In weird ways, I think it’s been more of a positive than a negative for me. Anxiety certainly sucks, especially those pesky panic attacks that crop up every now and again (they’re not fun when you’re driving). But sometimes I think I would get nothing done if not for the gnawing feeling in my stomach motivating me to write that paper, clean those dishes, or finish those errands. So I never made too big of a deal about my anxiety over the years; it sort of became a part of my personality—(“Shannon’s such a worry wort!)” To preface what I’m about to say: No one’s experience with anxiety is the same, and I’m in no way trying to suggest that people should approach their anxiety issues the same way I do.  It also depends on the severity of the anxiety itself, which for me, typically falls within the moderate to severe range depending on a variety of factors.

I can say with certainty that I never get too anxious over the fact that I’m anxious. This is an important point in terms of coping. I am not a practicing Buddhist, but a lot of what I have read concerns itself with living in the present, acknowledging one’s current state, and recognizing that it is not permanent. So I think what sort of helps me with my anxiety is that I know deep down I won’t feel this way forever, and it’s usually much shorter than that. I’m also lucky in that I’m not someone who suffers from daily physical pain, poverty, abuse, or severe mental illness; these Buddhist mantras can often seem like insensitive suggestions for those dealing with the worst of the worst life has to offer. However, the older I get, the more I realize that every single person I meet suffers from some form of anxiety, which to me, makes a lot of sense. Yes, some deal with a much more severe degree of it than others, whether it is because of past traumas, particular phobias, or chemical/hormonal problems, but the reality is that anxiety in some form is a part of the human experience. I actually am anxious about people who are NEVER anxious. The ones I have encountered who have this luxury are also not privy to many of the harsh realities of the world around them. Think of an ostrich putting its head in the sand; they feel that they are safe, but are oblivious to everything around them. What’s frustrating about these types of individuals is that since their head is buried in the sand, they can’t empathize with others’ trials and tribulations. This is not to say that one needs to be in constant hysteria over the overwhelming pain, suffering and injustice in the world–I mean, we all have to function. But there is something about the obtuseness of others which can really throw salt in the wounds of the more aware, who are also consequently, more anxious.

Empathy is part of what makes us human, and the erosion of it in U.S. culture is troublesome. We live in a society where rugged individualism and a perverted form of karma are ingrained in us from an early age. “Pull yourself up by your boot straps, and if you don’t have boot straps, too bad.” It’s a convenient and shallow analysis for a complex world: Things are as they should be, and if you’re not happy, well you can just blame yourself. This isn’t to suggest that personal responsibility doesn’t exist or ever factor in here–it certainly does to a degree. But the world is not so simple and opportunities so available and equitable that it serves as the ultimate solution. It merely reinforces an unjust status quo. So I think there are several important things one must recognize if they find themselves habitually anxious.

Well, first, some of us have very good reasons to be anxious. The loss of a job, the death of a family member, concerns about inequality, etc., are very understandable reasons for angst. When my angst is understandable, I often say to myself: “It makes sense that you’re anxious, so don’t worry about it.” It sounds strange, but it helps. Second, it helps me to channel that angst into something productive. (Depending on how severe one’s anxiety, this isn’t always possible for everyone.) I clean my apartment, update this here blog, etc. And third, figure out what works for you in terms of calming down. I hate when I am explaining a given situation/problem/dilemma or just generally venting, and someone says: “I wouldn’t worry about it” or “relax.” Captain obvious himself could not have said it better. So don’t be offended or flustered by these suggestions, but just maybe think about ways of calming down without having to share your worries with others. I think it rarely helps. If anything, you might get anxious over how anxious you might seem to others. Hmmm…sounds like an anxious/paranoid cycle.

So I’m going to keep trying to embrace the angst when it arises, and not worry about its presence. I’m thinking of naming my anxiety. The first name that popped into my head was Ophelia—not a good omen considering how things transpired for her in Hamlet. And she’s not exactly a feminist icon. However, maybe I’ll be lucky enough that my “Ophelia” will drown herself out of my psyche. If I’m fortunate, I’ll have a lifetime to find out.



Twentysomething Writer’s Block

I haven’t updated in awhile. Not that I haven’t wanted to of course, but sometimes it just feels impossible to put my thoughts into the permanent state that the written word provides. There is a permanence to writing that is uncomfortable, whereas if you make an error in judgment while shooting the shit with friends at a bar, you can likely walk away with your intelligence and dignity intact. Well, sometimes anyway. However, make that mistake in writing, and it is there forever. Even if you update it, qualify your statements, what’s done is basically done. Not that I’m not all for holding people, including myself, accountable, it’s just a frightening predicament for me. As a recovering Catholic, the metaphorical flogging I put myself through upon making a mistake can really take a toll psychologically. Case in point, I’m already chastising myself for seeming like a whiner in this post. (“Come on O’Sullivan, are you really whining about writing?”)

So what’s been creating this writer’s block of sorts? It’s definitely not that I can’t think of things to write. If anything, I’m constantly overanalyzing and over thinking.  I turned 25 this past week, and birthdays always offer a handy little reason to be self-reflective. I would say the best and worst part about your 20s is that they’re transitional: you’re figuring out who you are, what you wanna do, and your notions of how you think the world works or possibly should work. I am different than I was a year ago. Honestly, the changes I underwent between 21 and 25 represent a bridge between two totally different people. Family and friends may or may not notice the changes, but I certainly do.  I don’t think I’m unique here either. That being said, this transitional period can be highly frustrating. I often jokingly call myself an extroverted misanthrope. I’m as frustrated with myself as I am with others and the wider world. All people are selfish and crazy to varying degrees, and I am no exception. Therefore, clashes inevitably occur. But ultimately, I am highly social and need people. This makes for nothing if not an interesting life experience. Maybe it would be less frustrating to be a hermit, but experiencing the idiosyncrasies of others really can be so damn entertaining. Even at my most pissed off with others I have to say to myself: “At the very least, this crazy fuck has given me a great story.” And lucky for me, I am blessed in overwhelming abundance with literally constant stories about shit that people have done to me or at least someone within my realm of acquaintance.  I can keep this positive perspective to a degree, but it becomes more difficult to keep the Irish temper under control when people start getting hurt. However, I think I’m getting better at letting the truly toxic people fall to the wayside. Unfortunately, toxic people can sometimes create a critical mass that pollutes the society and the culture. Alas, there is no room in this blog post to even speculate about potential solutions to that problem.

So I’ve come to realize in my period of writer’s block that I’m often overwhelmingly frustrated with people. Even if I’m thinking about wider societal problems, the person within my acquaintance who is representative of that problem pops into my head. I ruminate about the incident in which they decided to reveal whatever given fucked up notion or mentality they have.  As I recently told a friend, I’d like to think that I don’t judge people, but that I discern people. We all have to make choices respective to the people in our lives and why they do the things they do. It’s not a matter of asserting your superiority (at least I would hope), but protecting yourself. I don’t want to surround myself with racists, sexists or classists, so I try to discern the people who don’t share my values about equality. This of course gets tricky with the people life’s circumstances force you to be around. This is even more challenging when you’re a recovering people pleaser and natural extrovert. You don’t want to be your own version of somebody who is dogmatically religious—casting judgment on all those you feel don’t live up to your ideological standards. (This especially goes for religious zealots, hipsters, and graduate students. Wouldn’t it be grand to meet someone who embodies all three?) There is no way any human can live up to a given ideal, or at the very least, it is extremely rare. Therefore, you can’t put expectations of perfection on anyone, including yourself.  Whatever ideals you may hold, there is no doubt you will inevitably fail to live up to them.  However, you also then need to find the balance between not being judgmental of others, and still holding toxic people accountable. I haven’t quite figured out this balance yet. Maybe by my 30s I will?

So in all my frustration over people recently, all it really resulted in was writer’s block. I just wanted to bitch about people in an organized, thinly veiled way, as my early 20s self would. But now, I’d like to think I’ve learned my lesson.  And of course, please feel free to discern this post all you like.



Waking Up

The problem with dreams is that you have to be asleep to experience them. Sleep: Our most preferred state of unconsciousness. We all dream from time to time, but how many of us live in our daydream world without being grounded in the real. I grew up in a working-class family with middle-class expectations (weren’t the ’90s grand?) We knew life wasn’t fair, we knew our disadvantages, but also our advantages. We often lived in the future, or to be more precise, in a dream, the American Dream. A dream that our lot would improve, that we would own a home—all the while keeping an eye on our vulnerabilities. We always knew we were one catastrophe away from losing it all, which put us ahead of many of our counterparts. From an early age I knew that I was vulnerable; I never went through an “invincible” stage that characterizes most youth experience. I remember how a childhood friend of mine referred to me as a “safety queen.” Just ask my current friends how I cross the street: It’s the most cautious game of frogger you’ll ever see. My brother was sick the majority of my childhood, and when I would visit him at the hospital and saw not only his reality, but the realities of all the other sick children on his floor, I came to realize that I was already one of the lucky ones. We also had health insurance…Something my Dad’s union auto-worker job made possible. That job is gone now, and I can’t help but think that if the timing were different with my brother’s hospitalizations that things could have been so much worse.

Now my parents, my brother, and I find ourselves still faced with working-class realities, and perhaps, even the prospect of borderline poverty (Universe forbid). We are certainly in good company, yet mainstream U.S. culture with its focus on rugged individualism and dividing us all up into the few elite winners and scores of “losers” heaps an unrelenting guilt and shame on those of us who “fail.” What brings me to writing this today? Well, in my research and writings about class, as well as race and gender, I am really writing about the ways in which our culture frames injustice. We all know those individuals, typically of a right-wing ideology, who essentially believe that each person is to blame for their own misfortune. Even though these people argue for a decreased role of government and demonize the social safety net, they also find themselves increasingly dependent on it. How does this blatant hypocrisy and denial of reality occur? Culture is a powerful thing, and for some, to admit that rugged individualism and the American Dream are largely inaccessible fantasies causes a crisis of personal identity. Thomas Frank addresses this in What’s the Matter with Kansas? and if you want to get really academic, Gramsci before him. The world is not a meritocracy, but even if it was in the truest sense, it would still leave many “losers” cast aside for a fate which is undetermined. (A recent Salon article also addresses notions of equal opportunity and meritocracy in U.S. culture).

These are things I grapple with on a regular basis, but in light of my recent struggles with clawing up the ivory tower of academia, they take on a renewed meaning. For those who are unfamiliar, higher education, especially graduate school, is becoming more inaccessible than ever before. Public universities are faced with an austerity crisis that is limiting funding greatly. Even if you dare to take out loans to finance your graduate degree, the rules have recently changed, so that federal student loans for graduate and professional degrees accrue interest even while students are in school. So even though I accrued a significant amount of debt to get an M.A. in American Studies, had I been a few years younger, things would have been even worse. I also recently applied to PhD programs with mostly negative results. I got accepted to SUNY at Buffalo, where I got my M.A., but was not offered funding. (See the aforementioned rule changes as to why I will not take out loans, and also, I’m already in debt, and would still have to work while completing the degree). I already worked 30-40 hours/week while getting my M.A., which of course left less time to dedicate toward my academic work, going to conferences, building up ye ol’ CV, etc. as compared to most of my peers. However, I did a decent job of keeping my academic focus and not dropping the ball on the “extras” needed to hopefully gain funding to a PhD program. I even teach adjunct now. Based on the results so far, it seems as though this still may not be enough to achieve “the dream.”

I know PhD programs are more competitive and underfunded than ever. Because the economy is doing so poorly, many people with years of professional experience and publishing credentials are going back, and I simply cannot compete with them at age 24. So I know my rejections are not a reflection of my intelligence, work ethic, or overall value as a human being. I am no longer asleep when it comes to the American Dream of meritocracy. So what’s my problem then? Well, the problem is other people are still asleep, and don’t understand when I explain why I didn’t get into my schools. “Wait, what do you mean you didn’t get in?” I am then put in the position of explaining myself and the state of academia today, which many do not understand, and I can tell what they are thinking…

The people who often seek an explanation and cast that judgmental look of doubt as I explain the complex reasons for why things didn’t go my way, are often privileged themselves. In their white, upper-middle class suburban world, things just went their way: Mommy and Daddy bought them cars so that they could commute to part-time jobs providing them with “spending” money. There was no need to take out student loans because of their parents’ piggy banks. They didn’t have to work during school, so they could focus their attention on their studies. They could afford to build up their resumes by taking unpaid internships. And the best part is that they often think: “If you just work hard, you’ll get ahead. That’s what I did, no one helped me.” So yes, these people serve as a thorn in my side, making me feel inadequate and again putting me in the position of wondering: “Wait maybe I should have done more,” even though I had already pushed myself to the brink…

So what? I suppose these people are not in the reality-based community, and there is no way they can ever be reached. They are too busy thinking that they are the self-made winners of the American Dream. Well, I guess it is okay to be a “loser” and be in touch with reality. So perhaps I have woken up from my American Dream of scaling the academic ivory tower. In ways, I have never felt better. I have a better understanding of the privileges and advantages I do have, all the while not wasting energy on the opportunities that have been closed off. Even being able to attempt a graduate degree often means you are in a position of privilege. So what’s next? I am not really sure. I’m just glad I’m no longer asleep.



2011, Global Protest, and Sociopathology: A Well-Rounded Blog

As the end of the calendar year approaches, I am always tempted to recap my thoughts and feelings on the twelve months that have just passed. For me, 2011 has certainly been one of the landmark years of my life, and I would argue, the world as a whole. I always wondered if and when I would have my own 1968, and it finally came in 2011. Although I must say that the dominance of mainstream corporate music put a damper on its soundtrack comparatively. Between the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and the counterpart European demonstrations, my long-awaited hope for truly democratic, non-hierarchical protest has been realized. (Please forgive me for all the other protests that received less media attention in the U.S. that I am sure I am forgetting).

If you would have told me one year ago that economic inequality would be the key talking point in mainstream U.S. political discourse, I would have said you were a lofty dreamer. If you would have told me that I would have participated in a Workers’ Appreciation March with something called Occupy Buffalo, in which hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds interested in social justice and equality would march through downtown Buffalo calling attention to workers’ rights issues, I would have been shocked.  Despite all the potential problems and inconsistencies within the Occupy movement, which I previously discussed here, its key victory has been that mainstream America is now aware of economic inequality. Because of the Occupy movement, the national conversation shifted from the deficit debate that dominated the talking points of cable news during the summer to discussing the reality of the global class war that has been the defining characteristic of the last 35 years. This is a time period which academics often refer to as the neoliberal era; a period marked by deregulation, the dismantling of the social welfare state, and union busting. (If anyone is interested, David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism provides an excellent synopsis). And now, when I talk about the class war, most people don’t look at me like I’m some crazy conspiracy theorist. “Have another drink O’Sullivan, we like you the most when you’re funny and doing impressions.”

This blog is a tricky balance for me at times, especially since I address the personal and political. (There really are a lot of things that piss me off).  But also because I am accustomed to writing with an academic bent, which (rightfully so) requires me to qualify in detail any statement I might make. I often have nightmares that if this blog were for whatever reason deconstructed in a graduate seminar for which I was present, the only remaining trace of me left in that room would be tear stains left on a yellow legal pad where I once sat. So yes, I do sometimes generalize a bit here, but that’s only for the sake of getting from point A to point B without it turning into lengthy term paper. That being said, I can now safely generalize that I am hopeful about the economic and political trajectory of the U.S., despite the very long and arduous fight that is surely ahead. After all the disappointments of the Obama administration, it is clear that to forge actual change we cannot work within the Wall Street supported two-party system, whose differences appear largely only in the rhetoric each party employs. I mean, look at the bi-partisan support for the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which contains a provision with conveniently broad language that would authorize the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens who are deemed threats to national security without due process. Wow. Again, this is the Obama administration everyone, not the Bush administration. It’s hard to accept when you’ve been tricked, but true progressives have known that the writing has been on the wall for quite some time with the corporate-funded Obama. Those who still think Obama is truly progressive need both a history book and a reality check.

So yes, the year has been inspiring, tragic, and above all, dynamic. There were progressive victories even aside from the Occupy movement, including marriage equality finally becoming a legal reality in New York State. However, there is a long battle ahead for eliminating all of the complex and intersecting inequalities that exist in our society based on race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, and more. Therefore, I am as quick to acknowledge the progress as I am to say we need to keep fighting.

However, just like all of us, I am along for the ride, and hope that I keep an open mind and continue to question my own beliefs and “known knowns” so to speak. (I guess Rummy was good for nothing if not clever wordplay.) So what final little anecdote/observation should I leave you with to end this blog for 2011? Well, conveniently enough, I read Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door over the weekend. It’s a must-read for the whole planet really. She discusses the approximately 1 in 25 Americans who walk through life without conscience, wreaking havoc on the other 96 percent. (Hmmm….I wonder how many sociopaths are in the 1%?) She references the famous experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early ’60s, in which he tested whether or not a person’s individual conscience would overcome their urge to obey authority. To summarize, the subject is told they are part of an experiment on learning and memory. He is then put in a separate room adjacent to another “subject” who is aware of the true nature of the experiment. Milgram then instructs the subject to shock the other “subject” in the adjacent room if he answers a question regarding memory incorrectly. The person in the adjacent room is not actually being shocked, but he yells and groans as if he is. The subject is instructed to increase the intensity of the shock as the experiment progresses with Milgram as the authority figure calmly prodding them to do so. Horrifyingly, 62.5% of all the subjects do not disobey the order to shock the other “subject” despite their conscience. This experiment was repeated numerous times, including with women (the first test involved all male subjects), and produced similar results each time.

Stout then concludes that if there was a hypothetical island with 100 people on it, 4 percent would be sociopaths, approximately 63 of them would never disobey authority despite their consciences, and the remaining 1/3 would be left to fend for themselves. So based on Stout’s analysis, I think the only chance we have is to recruit the obedient to our causes of conscience. This will be the only way to garner the public support and momentum needed to make a push for all forms of equality possible. It’s a lofty and arduous task, but if you would have told me one year ago that 2011 would be my 1968, I would have also thought that impossible. So remain realists, but don’t overlook the power of ideas. But above all, listen to your conscience, not authority. Otherwise, we are all targets for the sociopaths both great and small. On to 2012…



I’m glad everyone likes our poster campaign :)


There’s more:

Students Teaching About Racism in Society is a Student Org at Ohio University. I’m the President, any questions… MESSAGE ME! :)








(via The Greatest OWS Protest Sign Ever | The Big Picture)

You can tell this isn’t a Tea Party rally because there’s not one misspelling in that sign.


*This* is a sign.







(via The Greatest OWS Protest Sign Ever | The Big Picture)

You can tell this isn’t a Tea Party rally because there’s not one misspelling in that sign.


*This* is a sign.



What’s in a name? And other thoughts on how not to be a pain in the ass.

I am engaged. Well, there are many other aspects of my identity, but this is the most pertinent to mention in the context of this post. The only reason I preface my entry with this is because I cannot help but notice that some of those in the recently engaged, married, pregnant, etc. community have a nasty tendency of allowing this single aspect of their lives to become all-encompassing. I am not trying to diminish their importance—milestones are milestones, especially when someone actually takes them seriously. For example, not just caring about said milestones for the attention and perceived adoration they believe will be headed their way. If you’re someone who thinks this, I just wanted to let you know: Everyone thinks your an asshole. No, they really do. I know they seem like they support your idea of having a destination wedding at Disney World, where everyone has to wear matching hats and ugg boots, but they are just being nice to your face. After your ceremony that they clearly feel obligated to attend, they are seriously writing you off as a spoiled monster for the rest of their lives unless related by blood. Hmm…am I being too harsh? Nope, no I am not. In these brutal economic times (or hell, even in good economic times), if you actually expect people to break the bank to attend your wedding, you’re at best out of your fucking mind, and at worst, a sociopath.

And yes, although this is an exciting time in your life, you have to remember there is still a lot going on, not only in other people’s lives, but in society as a whole. It’s not that you can’t be excited and share details with your friends about said milestone—if they are true friends, they will be excited for you. But trust me, just because you’ve had a baby or gotten married, doesn’t mean that your friends/family want to talk about it all the time. It’s all about small doses—give them an update, tell a quick story, but don’t ramble on about how you just can’t believe how much life sucked before you were married, or about how nothing in life really mattered until you had a baby. (For the latter, please watch "Pregnant Women Are Smug.") Because ultimately life is a struggle for many, and I am not trying to be a Debbie Downer. If anything, I’m trying to be a Pragmatic Patty. The general rule in this regard is to try to empathize and relate to others. Did you just have a baby? Ok, that’s very exciting, and your child is, most likely, at least remotely cute. So please do share a photo and a story or two. But don’t go on an on about just how amazing your child is, especially if it seems like you view them as an extension of yourself. It comes across as very conceited, and your child is above all, a human being, who will one day grow up and hopefully be a conscientious, respectful person. But if your child overhears you talking like that, then they will likely grow up to be an asshole just like you. Man, I’m really getting my Irish up in this post…

So now that that diatribe has ended, let me get to the task at hand regarding my impending marriage to my wonderful fiancee. I am, for sure, a lucky girl for many reasons. But one of the major ways in which I am lucky is that my fiancee is cool with me keeping my maiden name. You would think it shouldn’t be a huge issue for a twenty-first century woman to want to keep her name, but according to a recent Indiana University study, 70% of the female respondents reported that they believe a woman should change her last name upon marrying. Now, I am not putting forth a feminist battle cry that all women should retain their names. I think it is a personal choice, of course, and I don’t think it really should be anyone’s concern except for the bride herself. However, it is important to recognize that all this social pressure to swap names stems from a long-held patriarchal tradition. This is not to say that you are endorsing patriarchy if you change your last name, it’s just that it doesn’t hurt to be informed about how this practice originated. For most women, it likely comes down to practicality, especially if they desire to have children. Perhaps they think it will create confusion for their kids if their parents have different last names. However, I don’t think that would be all too difficult to explain. Some may just like their husband’s last name, and view it as a fresh start. Others may just succumb to the social pressure that, as demonstrated by that survey and my own experience, can be rather intense. Regardless of the reasons, clearly I am going against the grain with my decision.

So that brings me to why I am choosing to keep my last name, and coincidentally, it has nothing to do with my feminist sensibilities. No, really, it doesn’t. Honestly, I just have an awesome name. I know it seems like I’m bragging, but it is true. I have a lot of Irish pride, and walking around with the name Shannon O’Sullivan has served a lot of purposes for me. First, people truly remember my name upon meeting me. When I introduce myself, I would say about 1 out of every 3 times I get a reaction such as this: “Wow, is that really your name? You’re clearly not Irish, are you Italian?” (*chuckle, chuckle*) And if I tell them my middle names, Eileen Marie, all hell breaks loose. On St. Patrick’s Day, I am literally treated as if it’s my birthday. (My birthday is March 23, and I was born 6 days late, which means, yes, St. Patrick’s day was my due date.) I cannot even tell you the number of free drinks I have gotten when the bartender discovers my name. (This is the benefit of the bad habit of using your debit card at the bar). Are these all selfish purposes? Sure. But ultimately, I feel like my name is a huge part of who I am. To go by another name seems foreign and bizarre—like I would be losing a part of myself. 

All the male readers: Just think to yourself for a second about what it would be like to have to change your last name upon marrying. Yes, I know this is not the tradition, and we live in a bullshit society where such a practice would make you feel emasculated. The practice of the woman taking your name is socially constructed, so don’t think you lose a testicle or your penis shrinks if you actually do it. Just separate yourself from the tradition, and put men and women on equal footing (excuse me as I  work within the gender binary). How would you feel if you had to change your last name? Remember, the patriarchal tradition of women taking their husbands’ last names doesn’t exist in this thought experiment. Wouldn’t it feel fucking weird? The surname you’ve had your whole life, one of your key identifiers, is now gone. The name you learned to write as a child, the name that appears on all your important identifications and documents. The name that is scrawled across your diplomas if you had the privilege of attending college. The name that appears on any awards or other achievements you may have received.  To these issues, you might say: “So what? You are still the same person regardless of the name change. You still achieved all those things.” True, but wouldn’t it still feel different?

I know for myself that I am already published under my current name, and I do not feel like going through the bullshit of proving that it was in fact me who wrote those articles or that thesis. Is it the world’s biggest hassle? No,but it is a hassle I am electing not to endure. I haven’t gotten too much shit from people about my decision. At least not yet. I was asked by a few if my fiancee was okay with it. (As though he wouldn’t marry me if I didn’t take his last name?) I doubt that’s what they were thinking, but it just proves how strongly held the tradition is. I had a couple people suggest that perhaps my fiancee would be offended if I didn’t take his last name. It’s sort of funny if you think about it: Why wouldn’t I be offended that he wants me to change my name? What gives him the right to demand such a drastic change to my life? In reality, why is my taking his last name an objective criteria for determining if I will be a good partner or not? Again, please remember to disregard the patriarchal tradition. Doesn’t that seem inherently unfair for him to take offense because I want to keep my name? These people were all well-intentioned, but they didn’t realize that these cultural practices can cloud how we view a situation.

I’m sure there are some who may secretly think that I’m a “crazy feminist,” or that I’m not “serious about marriage” or a “good wife.” And to these people I say: Marriage is about a lot more than a name change. I am committing to love and honor my partner for the rest of my life, and me keeping my name does not imply that I will be less loving or committed. And another important thing:We are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Economic, racial and gender inequality are at record levels, and the U.S. is waging two wars (if you include drone bombing campaigns as I do, quite a few more actually). In other words, there are far greater things to be worried about than my choice to keep my name situation as is. So if women keeping their maiden names after marriage riles you up, I would surmise that you are also more likely to be the type of person who speaks disproportionately about how wonderful and intricate your wedding ceremony will be, and just how gifted and talented your children are. You are also probably unaware of the realities of the world around you. And I would also venture a guess that you are against marriage equality. So to you I say: No one cares that much about your personal life, and you sure as hell shouldn’t care that much about mine or anyone else whether they are straight or GLBT. And, oh yeah: Go fuck yourself. Now how’s that for getting my Irish up??!!