Period Leave?

A company in the UK is giving women paid time off on their periods. The company director talks about replacing shame with positivity and letting employees work with their natural rhythm.

I’m all in favor of reducing period stigma, but I’m not a fan of this concept overall. First off, it reinforces the idea that women are fragile and need special treatment to achieve anything in the workplace. Guys are going to resent the hell out of it, and while part of me wants to say, “Dude, if you had these cramps, you’d call in sick, so hush,” it is reasonable to be miffed when you’re denied a perk based on gender.

Secondly, not everyone needs time off for their period. The level of pain and bleeding can range from “just annoying” to “only capable of curling up with a heating pad and sobbing.” And, as the OB/GYN quoted mentions, if you’re at the crappy end of that scale, there may be something medically wrong. I’m a little less sanguine than she is about the likelihood of treatment completely solving the issue. (I can’t count the number of b.c. methods I’ve tried in the hope of making my own monthly curse a little less miserable, with less than stellar results.) But, I can see where period leave could normalize bleeding or pain levels that are a problem. The flip side of that is that encouraging women to be open about their periods provides a basis for comparison. (You mean, everybody doesn’t have to use a pad and a tampon both for the first day or two?)

In my ideal world, everyone could take off when they feel too crappy to be productive. But I wouldn’t assume that periods always meet that, or that people who have periods need more time off than those who don’t.

Trigger Warnings Part 3: You don’t have to call it a trigger warning

Remember how, almost a year ago, I critiqued “The Coddling of the American Mind,” but said it had some good points I’d come back to in a later post?  Well, it’s later.

The article touches on the idea that warning someone about a trigger might actually make it more likely for them to be triggered by it, and describes the idea that someone would be triggered by specific content as “fortune telling:”

Burns defines fortune-telling as “anticipat[ing] that things will turn out badly” and feeling “convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.” Leahy, Holland, and McGinn define it as “predict[ing] the future negatively” or seeing potential danger in an everyday situation. The recent spread of demands for trigger warnings on reading assignments with provocative content is an example of fortune-telling.

There’s a certain amount of reasonableness to this.  Having negative expectations isn’t always the most helpful of thought patterns, and part of treatment for anxiety and depression is trying to challenge those negative expectations.  Also, the nocebo effect is a real thing. Believing that something will harm you can actually cause harm. You can get sick by being exposed to something completely harmless, because you believe it will hurt you.  The mind is a weird and complex thing.

So, yes, there’s a certain amount of risk in providing trigger warnings.  You might stress someone out about content that they would’ve handled fine if you hadn’t told them.  And it might encourage overall negativity.

But the nocebo effect exists in lots of other situations, and the response to that is not to hide important information from people. Trumpeting the dangers of gluten can actually spark a nocebo reaction where people feel ill when they consume it (or think they do). But that doesn’t mean you get rid of ingredient labels all together so people will “toughen up.”  For one thing, there are people with celiac and wheat allergies who will get horribly sick and might actually die. But for another, even someone with a gluten issue that’s completely in their mind, totally a nocebo effect, still has the right to decide what they want to put in their body, and no one should try to trick them into eating something that they don’t want to.  Likewise, you shouldn’t deliberately avoid mentioning that a reading contains a graphic rape scene, because you think students should have to grapple with it.  Yes, maybe someone avoids the reading who could have read it without harm, but that should be their decision to make.  (As a side note, providing a trigger warning doesn’t automatically mean excusing a student from doing that reading.  There are some situations where legal disability accommodations or being a decent person would require it, but in and of itself, it’s just information.)

So, what happens if you provide the same information, but don’t call it a trigger warning.  Put a little blurb about each reading in the syllabus that includes the basic premise and theme and makes note of any sensitive subject matter. It’s not a trigger warning, so it should reduce the nocebo effect, but it still gives students the same information.  And students with mental health issues can then use that information as they see fit.

Going back to what I said earlier about informed consent, to me, giving students a heads up about potentially harmful material isn’t coddling them–it’s treating them like adults by giving them the information they need to make decisions.


Anxiety and not being an asshole—AKA not letting Yippy bite the other dogs at the park

I’ve seen a couple very “suck it up and deal, you’re not a special snowflake” blog posts about mental illness lately. The first, “Your Anxiety Isn’t an Excuse to Be an Asshole” is what inspired the title of this post.

Her basic premise is that there’s too much online advice excusing self-indulgence and jerk behavior in the name of self-care, and that people think their anxiety gives them license to treat others like shit. I’ll agree with her basic premise: anxiety is not an excuse to be mean or self-centered. But at the same time, I have a couple disagreements.

First off, I’d have loved to see her link some examples of the advice she sees as problematic. I’ve seen plenty of “You can’t pour from an empty cup” and “Be gentle with yourself,” but absolutely no “Cancel plans with no explanation,” or “Throw your phone in the river and lock yourself in your room for two weeks.” This may be because I’m not on Tumblr, but I think I hang out in enough anxiety-friendly spaces online that I’d have noticed such a trend. So, to start with, I’m not sure if suggestions to blow off responsibilities and flake out on loved ones are a real thing or a giant strawman. I mean, the internet is vast and full of all sorts of questionable crap–someone, somewhere probably said this at some point.

Secondly, while I fully admit that anxiety can make it harder to avoid being a jerk, and I’ve been guilty of that myself,a lot of the time it makes people *more* sensitive to other people’s feelings. Not in a helpful way. More in an “Oh, God, did I piss them off? I bet I pissed them off, they’re totally going to hate me,” way. I have definitely been terrified that someone would hate me forever over fairly minor stuff. So, telling me that “No one has to put up with your bullshit, and if you don’t actively work on making yourself a better and more rewarding person to be around, no one should wait around for you,” well, it does more to feed the jerk-brain than actually help anything. Both because constant fear of losing people (because you suck and they’re probably only nice to you out of pity anyway) is an awful and unhealthy place to be and because needing constant reassurance is just as annoying as being abrasive or flaky.

Finally, there’s the bit about cancelling plans. It sucks to have people bail on you, especially at the last minute, and especially if those plans can’t go on without them. But it’s also shitty to expect someone with a chronic illness (or, heck, anybody) to never have to cancel. Is it jerk-like to blow off plans without calling? Yes, especially if you do it all the time. Is it selfish to bail if you’re not feeling 100% but could really go and be okay? Yeah, particularly if the plans in question can’t happen without you, like a one-on-one lunch date or if you’re someone’s ride. But on the other hand, anxiety is an actual illness. If you have a friend who gets migraines, you understand that sometimes they will cancel on you if a headache comes at a bad time. If you have a friend with anxiety or depression, you should give them the same consideration.

One thing I thought was lacking here was any discussion of root causes for flaking out. If you’re having to cancel plans all the time, maybe you’re over-committing yourself, or making the wrong kind of plans. Too loud, with too many people, or not enough time in between to recharge, maybe? The answer might not be “Suck it up and go, or you don’t deserve to have friends” unless it’s some major life event. It may be to look at why you’re having trouble, and plan fewer or easier things.

I’ll agree that anxiety isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free card for ignoring responsibilities. But it may be a sign you have too many responsibilities. All the things the author mentions as helping with her anxiety–eating better, exercising, having a dog, getting a less stressful job–those all take time and effort, leaving you less for other things. It’s a good investment of spoons, and likely to leave you with more time and energy in the long run than if you *didn’t* take care of yourself, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t displacing something. And if you have anxiety about disappointing people or missing out, it’s really easy to overcommit.

I could have probably made this a much shorter post if I had just said, “If you want to know how to cope with anxiety without being a jerk, go read Captain Awkward.” She has a lot of great stuff on boundaries in relationships, and she does a really good job of explaining that balance where you respect your friends’ needs without ignoring your own.

Abortion as self-defense

I was discussing abortion with a fairly conservative friend, and an interesting parallel occurred to me. He, like most other conservatives, is big on the right to bear arms for self-defense, but generally opposed to abortion. Even if you grant that a fetus is a person, it seems odd to accept killing someone who breaks into your home, but to be required to accept the intrusion and all the associated risks if someone occupies your *body*. Even if the intruder isn’t actively harming you, or about to, none of these guys would let that person rummage through their stuff and eat their food for a day, let alone nine months.

Sure, the analogy has problems. There are choices and moral culpability on the home intruder’s side, while no one gets to pick who they’re born to. But as a thought experiment, what if you took that away? Say you knew that an intruder in your home was there for reasons beyond their control. Maybe they’re experiencing a delusion, maybe they’ve been drugged against their will, or Kilgraved or taken over by aliens. Pick whatever explanation you like that removes blame or decision-making from them, however far-fetched–because, thought experiment. Assuming their actions are the same and the chance that they will harm you is the same and it doesn’t give you any other options, does that change your right to defend yourself and your property? Morally or legally? I mean, it would change how you feel about it, certainly. And I think it would add more responsibility to look for other options than if the person meant you harm. But I don’t think it would mean you were obligated to let them do whatever they’re going to do (maybe harm you, maybe just break your possessions, maybe nothing at all).

So, then, take it another level. Let’s assume that if you remove them from your house or leave their presence, they’ll die. Kilgrave-style mind control is probably the hypothetical that works best for this. Say they’ve been mind-controlled into following you around, and if you lose them, they’ll die. How long are you obliged to let them go everywhere with you? A week? A month? Nine months? What if they randomly hit you–not hard enough to do damage, just painful? What if they make it difficult or impossible to do your job, and you risk being fired?

In this weird scenario, I’d like to think I would do the paladin thing and help them out until we could un-mind-whammy them and they could go on their way. But I wouldn’t condemn someone who decided they couldn’t take it. And I don’t think it’s reasonable for someone who’d feel no qualms about shooting someone dead for trying to steal their stereo to expect that kind of sacrifice from other people.

On Candles and Darkness

I’m just coming back from a week-long vacation, seeing family, relaxing, and reading a lot. But in the world beyond my little personal bubble, it’s been a really bad couple weeks. Terrorist attacks in Paris, Libya, Mali. An outpouring of religious hatred against refugees fleeing for their lives, with presidential candidates fanning the flames. And a spate of domestic terrorism, from armed rallies, arson, and vandalism at mosques to a deadly shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado.

So in the midst of all this, I’ve been railing against all the evil and hate in the world. I’ve posted on Facebook about hate crimes, about Donald Trump falsely accusing American Muslims of celebrating 9/11, about the connection between dehumanizing rhetoric and terrorist violence. And I’ve been thinking about that old saying, that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. While I think it’s true, I also feel a weird pressure to be positive and sunshiny when the world seems to be falling apart all around me or to be super kind and sensitive even when calling out evil, and I don’t think that’s helpful.

Sure, lighting a candle is better and more useful than cursing the darkness, but you don’t always have a candle handy. Sometimes you just need to say “HEY! It’s really dark over here!” in the hopes that someone else will come by with a candle. Or the darkness is so deep and seemingly impenetrable that your little candle doesn’t do much to dispel it. So you yell about the darkness to anyone who will listen, trying to spur people to bring not just candles but lanterns and spotlights. And sometimes cursing the darkness is really all you can do, because you tripped and fell in that darkness. Now you’re on the floor with a sprained ankle and no candles in reach, so you curse. Not only because you need a hand, but because cursing actually helps with the pain.

At the same time, you can get wrapped up in cursing the darkness, to the exclusion of everything else. And as good and useful as it is to point out the darkness, and stand up against it, it’s also necessary to point out the light where you find it. Like with everything else, I guess it’s a balance.

Come back, you selfish person, we’re not done hurting you yet!

This post, The Selfishness of Skipping Church, came across a progressive Christian Facebook group I belong to. I was, to put it mildly, not impressed. People don’t go to church, he argues, because they’re selfish and lazy, and view church like buying a car. He does say he isn’t criticizing ” the shut-in, the sick, or those who must work” but he also calls hurts, needs, and disappointments an “excuse” that apparently isn’t sufficient reason not to show up every Sunday, at a minimum.  He criticizes people who only go to church “once or twice a month”:

 Imagine if a construction crew showed up to a building site only once or twice a month.  Think of what would happen if physicians and nurses manned the hospitals and ERs only a couple of times a month.  Consider the problems in education if our teachers worked only two days a month.

How about considering that construction crews, nurses, and teachers have promised to work a certain job, day in and day out, and in exchange for that commitment are being paid. In contrast, church is something people need to fit in around the activities that actually pay their bills, and something that most people have made no promise to attend every time the doors are open.

To me, making it to church every other Sunday counts as pretty regular church attendance, but apparently it’s a “cold, lifeless” and selfish behavior. The author bemoans the fact that people used to go to church “weekly and even several times a week,” which is apparently the expected standard. It may just be my own church history, but when a church wants me to go to two and three services a week, it feels like a red flag to me.  Am I supposed to have hobbies or a life outside the church? If I try to have boundaries, are people going to respect them?

I would even be fine with railing against people who renege on their commitments, like volunteering to serve and then suddenly dropping the ball. But for this author, even serving in church isn’t enough, as he criticizes “church workers who only show up to church when they are scheduled to serve, teach, or lead.” These are the people who are keeping the church running, but that’s not enough if they ever skip church. They might get a pass if they’re sick but being tired, or wanting to go out of town for the weekend, ever, probably doesn’t cut it.  Likewise, if you’re actually scheduled to work the hours that church is in session, that’s okay, but if you just got off midnights Sunday morning, drink some coffee and drag your selfish butt to church because American civilization will be wrecked by “rabid hedonists, religious fanatics, and ignorant young socialists and progressives” if you don’t go to church often enough. This bit had me scratching my head, because I have to wonder what counts as a religious fanatic to someone who expects unfailing church attendance regardless of an individual’s needs. At least I know from the jab at ignorant socialists and progressives that he doesn’t actually want me at his church, which I’m quite okay with.

One of the worst things about this article is that it so narrowly defines valid reasons for missing church or leaving a church. It’s not even enough to attend church regularly; once you start going to a church, you and that church are married, and you aren’t allowed to even consider other churches, lest you be a selfish church-shopper, ” ungraciously and habitually leaving church after church.” No acknowledgment that some pastors are abusive, or that some churches teach harmful theology. No acknowledgment that people’s religious beliefs can change over time, and they might leave a church over serious disagreements, whether because the church changed or because they did. And certainly no acknowledgment that anyone might leave a church because they aren’t welcome, or literally aren’t safe. Nope, you’re just selfish and lazy, with a cold and lifeless faith and a greedy consumerist attitude.

But even worse, in my view, is combining that with the reasons that the author is so dead set that all Christians must attend church all the time no matter what:

The culprits in the current spiritual malaise and indifference in our country are the selfish Christians who fail to consider how they can help, assist, and encourage someone else by coming faithfully to church instead of focusing on and serving their own wants, preferences, needs, and schedules.  That single mindset of coming to church not for what you can receive, but for what you can provide is the key to a true spiritual renewal in our land. When you are not in church the gifts and abilities in you are not made available to others.

That is, your needs aren’t important. We don’t care about your schedule, or your other obligations, or your struggles, but we expect you to care deeply about ours. You must always encourage, assist, and provide, never expecting anything in return, and if you get burned out and want any kind of spiritual nourishment or encouragement for yourself, we’ll berate you for your selfishness.  This sounds less like the body of Christ and more like an abusive relationship.

Faking Allergies – Don’t do it, but don’t assume others are faking

This article describing the process restaurant kitchens go through to avoid cross-contamination for customers with allergies was fascinating. Labels, separate cutting boards, the whole nine yards.

I have mixed feelings on the article as a whole. I think it points out a real problem but is also too quick to paint people who go gluten-free without celiac or a wheat allergy as bandwagon-hoppers.

11 percent of American households are following a gluten-free diet, even though only a quarter of them said they were doing it because of celiac or gluten intolerance.

The gluten-free spectrum is diverse. About 0.3 percent of Americans have a wheat allergy, meaning that ingesting even a trace amount could send them into anaphylactic shock. Then there is the 1 percent with celiac. Finally, there are people with gluten sensitivity, who suffer symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, or fatigue after eating gluten. Given the absence of diagnostic tools, the size of this last group is particularly fuzzy, though Fasano’s research suggests it’s in the 5 to 6 percent range.

Fasano is troubled that so many people are diagnosing themselves with gluten intolerance, changing their diet without ever going to the doctor. “You don’t say, ‘I’m drinking a lot and peeing a lot, so I must have diabetes,’ and then start injecting yourself with insulin.”

Many who go gluten-free find themselves feeling better and see that as proof that they have gluten intolerance. But a genuine gluten problem is only one of three possible explanations for their improved health, and statistically the least likely. Another reason could be the placebo effect. The most likely explanation is that paying closer attention to diet and avoiding fried and junk food — which tends to be loaded with gluten — is bound to make anyone feel better.

What’s the big deal if gluten-tolerant people go gluten-free, especially since they’ll be eating fewer Pop-Tarts?

The problem is the more these bandwagon-jumpers demand special attention, the more likely that restaurants and wider society will come to see all gluten-free people as phonies.

The assumption, based on a single poll, is that the majority of people doing a gluten-free diet are simply following the fad. But I don’t think the math holds up. If 1 percent of people have celiac disease, .3% have a wheat allergy, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-6% have gluten intolerance, and 11% are doing gluten-free, then the majority (6-7 of 11) of those have an allergy or intolerance to gluten. That’s odd considering that it was the main reason given by only a quarter of the gluten-free respondents to the survey quoted. (The summary of the study itself doesn’t list all the potential reasons or indicate whether respondents had to select a single main reason. And only 25% of the respondents believed that a gluten-free diet was generally healthy for everyone. So, a large majority are well aware that gluten isn’t some dietary bogeyman, but something that some people react badly to.

As another confounding factor, gluten-free diets are hawked as a potential weight loss method, and I don’t know whether “weight loss” was a reason given in that survey. And while gluten-free in and of itself isn’t likely to result in weight loss, having severely limited carb options certainly can, at least in the short term. When doctors push weight loss as the solution to any and all problems, it’s not surprising that people would flock to anything that’s promising that as a potential benefit. In their view, they are doing it for a legitimate health reason. The article mentions claiming allergies to dairy as a weight-loss tactic, but doesn’t connect that with a fatphobic culture or pressure to be thin at any cost.

I also think the “you wouldn’t just diagnose yourself as diabetic and start taking insulin” analogy is way off. If eating something makes you feel crappy, and taking it out of your diet makes you feel better, you are under no obligation to prove to anyone else that your issue with that food is legitimate. You get to eat whatever you want, period, end of story, diagnosis or no diagnosis. Sure, if you’re cutting out whole food groups, you should probably work with a doctor and/or dietitian both to verify that it’s necessary and to make sure you’re not missing important nutrients. And if you’re having symptoms that seem allergy-related, then seeing a doctor is an extremely good idea. Both to make sure you have emergency meds if needed and to nail down what precisely you’re allergic to. But if it’s a mild intolerance, and you can cut something out without stressing yourself out or severely limiting your diet, that’s your call and no one else’s. Eliminating a food from your diet isn’t even in the same ballpark as randomly deciding to take prescription medications with no diagnosis.

For example, I don’t eat pad thai. I’ve had it twice, once at a restaurant and once homemade. Both times, it tasted delicious, then sat in my stomach like lead, and I felt lousy. Did I just eat too much of it? Is there something in it or some combination of things that I react badly to? Was it a total coincidence? I have no idea. But when given the opportunity to eat pad thai, I think “ick,” associate it with an upset stomach, and don’t want to repeat the experience. But as long as green curry, chicken satay, and tom kah gai exist in the world, I can live quite happily without ever eating pad thai.

If we decide that I’m not allowed to go “pad thai-free” without a real medical diagnosis, how do I accomplish this? If I go to the doctor and say, “When I eat pad thai, I feel sick to my stomach?” do you think they’re going to run tests or try to figure out if I’m intolerant to fish sauce or tamarind or beansprouts, or do you think they’ll tell me not to eat pad thai? Yes, I know there’s a difference between cutting out one highly specific food and avoiding a staple like wheat, but even people with definite gluten sensitivity often have trouble getting a diagnosis. So they do what they need to do for themselves to feel better. If there are barriers to their getting appropriate medical care (and there are an awful lot of those in the US), we should work on those, but in the mean time, people are still going to take care of themselves as best they know how.

I agree that people shouldn’t lie about allergies. If something upsets your stomach or gives you gas or triggers a gag reflex, it’s not an allergy. That doesn’t mean you should be expected to eat it for politeness’ sake, but lying about allergies does cause people to jump through totally unnecessary hoops to avoid cross-contamination. But I also think that people are too eager to “catch” somebody faking and that they jump on inconsistencies that may or may not be dishonesty. The person who can’t have dairy and then ordered ice cream? Maybe they lied. Maybe they weighed the risks and decided it was worth it. Getting to make your own decisions includes making decisions that aren’t optimal. And sometimes people have multiple competing things going on with food that they don’t feel the need to fully explain, which might look inconsistent or dishonest on the surface. This Captain Awkward post about a part-time vegetarian is a good example. People seem really quick to jump to “Lying!” “Attention-seeking!” instead of “Needed protein!” or “Don’t fit fully into either the carnivore or vegetarian box!”

Personal example time again. I don’t generally tolerate spicy foods well, both in taste and in GI unpleasantness afterwards. But it really depends on the day. There will be times when I think, “Bring on the heat!” and times when lamb korma somehow tastes “hot” to me. And while I’ve had GI unpleasantness from Mexican food, I’ve never had that reaction to hot wings. (Possibly because they go with pizza, so the percentage of “hot foods” to “overall meal” is lower.) So, if I turn something down because it’s too spicy and then next week you see me eating hot wings, it may look like I’m bullshitting you, but that’s not actually the case.

I do think it’s impolite to put other people to trouble you won’t go to yourself. If you’re going to expect a kitchen to slow way down to do the allergy dance for you, then you should be willing to forgo the tasty food with the ingredient you just told them you can’t have. And it would be kind of jerk-like as a semi-vegetarian to insist that your steak-loving friends always go to the vegetarian place rather than having your once-every-so-often chicken come from the place they like.