Category Archives: Uncategorized

Six Years

They say that as time passes, loss gets easier. To a large extent, that’s true. I do not feel as lost, bewildered and numb as I did in the days and weeks immediately following my father’s suicide. I was on autopilot during that time, taking on everything he abruptly left behind, my days reduced to a list of things to do to manage his affairs. I was barely keeping my head above water, knocked around by waves, struggling to stay afloat.

I imagine most people never walk on dry land after losing a parent. I think I’ll forever be wading in the chilly waters of grief, although I have my footing now, so it’s easier, as everyone assured me it would be. On a typical day, everything is fine, I’m fine. It’s the usual suspects that push me into deeper waters – holidays, birthdays, a stray document from his estate that got misplaced and turns up, anything pro-gun, the inherited plastic food storage container with his name written in black Sharpie on the bottom that I assume he used to take lunch to work. The water rises fast, a strong current pulls on me, just for a moment. The water recedes, and I’m back to safely wading.

My parents divorced when I was 2, so when I was a kid living in Houston with my mom, I would take several bus trips a year to visit my father in East Texas. It was about a 3 hour drive on the Trailways bus. I was always excited to get there, and carefully kept track of each dot-on-the-map town we passed, anticipating the occasional road signs that indicated how many more miles until we arrived in my hometown. I watched the miles dwindle until the city limits sign appeared. Ten minutes later, I would hop off the bus, and hug my father.

When I was 12, my mom and I moved to Philly. The bus trips stopped. The journey to what I now half-jokingly call Nowhere, East Texas to my East Coast friends who ask where I’m from, became so expensive and complicated, especially in the years before I could legally rent a car to drive from the Houston airport, that my trips to visit my father and extended family eventually dwindled to only every few years.

Our relationship collapsed from there. We lived 1500 miles apart, and he took minimal responsibility for helping me get to Texas, and only visited me in Philly once when I was 25. I was diagnosed with depression and an eating disorder at 16, and he wasn’t equipped to parent a teen, let alone a teen with mental health issues. From the time I was born, he had an infinite number of better things to do than be my parent – he spent his money on cars, ski trips, scuba diving, flying planes, boats and fishing, hunting, and who knows what else. I made the effort to work around his priorities when I was young enough to not know any better, but once I became a teen, he needed to put some effort into being a parent, and he didn’t.

Like those mileage signs, my interactions with him are mile markers for my late teens and young adulthood. The time I visited him when I was 19, after he learned about my mental health issues, and we got in a huge argument. I wanted to go home early, so I changed my plane ticket, and he dropped me off at the airport without even saying goodbye to me. We didn’t speak for three years, until I called him angry and in tears that he hadn’t called to tell me my great grandmother, who I loved more than life, had passed away. There was that time when I was 25, and he visited me in Philly with his girlfriend. It was a nice visit, surprising because it was so out of character for him to go out of his way for me. Although his girlfriend had teenage sons, so I suspect she had something to do with the unusual visit. When I was 27, he called to tell me he was getting married that day. I assumed it was to the woman I had met in Philly, but it was a different woman. Two years later, while visiting my hometown, he was divorced, and I met a different woman, the one whose actions led to his suicide. Then there was the time I talked to him when I was 31, a few weeks before my wedding. He asked if children were invited because that last girlfriend had a daughter, and I said it was adults only. That was our last interaction. After that, the mile markers weren’t that year I saw him or that conversation we had, but the number of years since we last talked. 1 year. 5 years. 6 years. Then he killed himself.

Now the mile markers are years since he died. Today, it’s 6 years.

I don’t mind the wading so much. I’ve gotten used to it. It’s the anniversary when the water rises, the waves are high, and I feel adrift. I have to be with my memories because it’s all I have left.

Sitting in the blue corduroy occasional chair we’ve since gotten rid of, hearing my aunt’s voice over the phone, telling me he’d taken his life. The delay in processing the words, like she was speaking a different language.

On the second night after his death, when we were in Texas at my granny’s house, I woke up in the middle of the night, having seen a bright light in my sleep, hearing him, feeling him with me. I shot awake, terrified, and out of breath.

Sitting in the pastor’s office talking about the funeral for a man who had been a stranger to me, feeling like an intruder.

The photos that were projected prior to the funeral service, and not a single one of me with him. It stabbed me in the heart for its truth. There were only ever a handful of photos of us together, and apparently they were all in my possession in Philly, given to me piecemeal by my granny and great grandmother when I was younger. He only had one photo of me in his possession, buried in one of those under-the-bed plastic storage boxes, lost among hundreds of photos of cars, boats, and planes. I didn’t find that single photo until weeks later, cleaning out his house, looking for evidence that I mattered to him.

Looking through his checkbook, laptop, and personal documents, with the explicit task of getting his affairs in order, but the more primal desire to know who this man was.

Standing in his well-organized closet, overwhelmed and undecided about what to do with his underwear, custom Nikes, NASCAR jackets, and cowboy boots.

Sitting in his house, alone, in silence, on a beautiful mild East Texas winter day, wishing for it to be a mistake, wishing time to be reversed. Wishing I had set aside a lifetime of resentment, and reached out to him, then feeling angry that he put me in that position by being a shitty parent, and then feeling like a shitty person for judging a man who was flawed and troubled, made a lot of bad decisions, and clearly didn’t know how to be a father.

In a rare moment of honesty and authenticity, during a phone conversation when I was 30, he said he wanted to have a better relationship with me, but didn’t know how because we didn’t have anything in common. I felt his sadness. Of course, we didn’t have anything in common because he chose to mostly live his life without me. About a year after that phone conversation, he chose to not attend my wedding. It was those choices he made, time and time again, that led to us not having that better relationship. Wanting a better relationship… we did have that in common.

Maybe I thought after 5 years, it would only be the big anniversaries that got to me – 10, 15, 20. It’s not working like that though. The grief feels deeper this year than I remember it being last year. I don’t know how to do this every year. It is easier than the first couple of years, but after that, it’s just wading, and being a good swimmer when the waves rush in.

Christmas 1974
Christmas 1974

The Diabetes Online Community, White Privilege & #BlackLivesMatter

White Privilege by Bart Everson
White Privilege by Bart Everson

I’m afraid to post this. Even as I was writing it, I was deliberating about whether or not I would share it. I can’t decide if I’m more fearful of a lack of response, especially in light of the time and care I have invested in writing this, or if I’m fearful of antagonistic responses. After all, white people are resistant to discussions about racial justice… I say as a white person who is working to overcome my own white fragility, which DiAngelo (2011) defines as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” I don’t want to maintain white racial equilibrium though, so here goes…

I think about privilege a lot lately. I’m fascinated by how we are each differently positioned, privileged in some ways, perhaps less so in other ways. A linear model is one way to imagine privilege, each person situated somewhere on a spectrum. I’m not convinced that captures the complexity of privilege though, so I imagine something 3-dimensional, vaguely reminiscent of a solar system, never static, with intersecting shifting orbits of race, age, ability, sexual identity, gender, class, size, species, geography, and everything that makes each of us who we are.

I think about my privilege a lot lately. I’m a middle aged, middle class white woman. I have a mostly invisible disability – type 1 diabetes (T1D) – so I appear able-bodied, even though I don’t always feel able-bodied, and managing my health consumes considerable effort and financial resources. I’m bisexual, but married to a man. I’m taller and thinner than the average American woman. I have a history of mental illness, but thankfully, I had access to treatment with a positive outcome. I have an advanced degree, and I’m pursuing a doctorate. I live in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, so I have access to services and resources. All of this is to say that I’m considerably privileged. This affects the choices available to me, how others perceive me, and how I perceive and function in the world. These are my filters through which I have thought about the discussion that follows.

My recognition and appreciation of privilege is heightened now, but I have long been sensitive to the vast inequities in the world. To me, “life isn’t fair,” is a cheap platitude intended to dismiss our responsibility to examine why inequity exists, and do something tangible about it. In my late teens, I came to see myself as an anti-racist feminist, without knowing anything substantial about the theories behind race and feminism. More recently, I’ve had opportunities to learn about forms of systemic oppression, and how they are inextricably linked. I’m now aware of a multitude of ways that beings are marginalized based on race, nationality, age, size, sexual identity, gender identity, ability, class, geography, religion (or lack thereof), and species. This learning process has been – and continues to be – transformative in the most surprising ways.

Although I’ve identified as anti-racist since my youth, I now see that my understanding of racism was shallow and fundamentally flawed. As a liberal anti-racist, I proclaimed myself “colorblind” because that’s what white liberals living in the post-Civil Rights, supposedly post-racism era did. Without anyone to challenge me, and without pursuing information that would have contradicted my perception, I felt like I knew all there was to know about racism. I mean, where does one go after post-racism, right? I never stopped to consider how incoherent it was for racism to exist in a supposedly post-racist society. I didn’t have to think about it though. My whiteness afforded me that privilege.

A few events transpired that shook me loose from that stagnation. I began my doctoral program (more privilege…), where I worked with colleagues of different nationalities and different races, and had reading assignments specifically about race and culture. I was exposed to the idea of “otherization,” the process of regarding someone(s) as different which creates an us/them dichotomy, and enables us to treat them differently. My understanding of otherization of humans opened my eyes to otherizaion and exploitation of animals, which compelled me to adopt veganism. Once divorced from my investment in rationalizing exploitation of animals, and with greater sensitivity to the enculturated ways animals are oppressed, I circled back to re-examine the enculturated ways that humans oppress other humans who are less privileged.

In the midst of these realizations, #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) was gaining traction. Initially, I didn’t know what to make of it, but I wanted to understand it. I was fortunate to have a friend who has been actively involved in BLM though, and he shared a lot of BLM content that intrigued and challenged me. I also discovered vegan activists whose work was intersectional, examining the connections between animal rights and human rights (problematic terminology since humans are animals, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion). I’ve most notably been influenced by the Sistah Vegan Project, its founder, Dr. Amie Breeze Harper, whose revelatory work is grounded in critical race, feminist, and food justice theory, and the many people who participate in discussion in the Sistah Vegan community.

These influences transformed my perception of BLM. Black people engaging in BLM are compelled because the racially-influenced violence against them is a crisis. As my perception shifted to comprehend racism as a crisis, I began to feel the urgency of creating a society that isn’t killing and otherwise harming people based on their blackness or brownness. I came to recognize that it was my white privilege that allowed me to be a casual observer, a phenomenon most hilariously captured in this satirical piece from Reductress, End Your Summer on a Relaxing Note by Ignoring Systemic Racism, which includes suggestions like meditation: “It’s good to start by reciting a mantra over and over, such as ‘I am a good person’ or ‘I am not a racist.’ You’ll emerge feeling refreshed and validated, to the delight of your all-white social circle!” It’s a stretch to even call this satire because I’m convinced this is happening all around me.

Increasingly, each incident of a POC dying at the hands of police affects me more deeply. That’s not to say that I wasn’t shocked and saddened by earlier deaths, but I recognize each death as part of a larger crisis now, rather than isolated, unrelated events. Of note, Sandra Bland’s death really shook me, perhaps because I’ve been in a similar position – a woman driving in Texas getting pulled over for a minor driving offense. Only, I’m white, so when I was pulled over for a minor driving offense in rural Texas, my worst fear was getting a ticket. Not getting pulled out of the car. Not getting slammed to the ground. Not getting taken to jail. And sure as shit, not dying in a jail cell.

Michael Robinson
Michael Robinson

Last week, news of Michael Robinson’s death emerged. Michael Robinson was arrested and jailed for not keeping up with child support payments. He had T1D, managed with MDI (multiple daily injections), and was denied medical treatment. According to reports, he repeatedly demanded medical treatment, but was ignored. A PWD (person with diabetes), typically has a fasting BG (blood glucose) goal of 80-120, give or take. The complexity of balancing food, activity and insulin in order to be forever aiming for that narrow BG range means that BG levels drift out of range frequently. That’s not to mention the almost countless variables that are generally outside of a PWD’s control that can also affect BG, such as stress hormones, and insulin absorption at any given injection/infusion site. Having a “high” BG in the 200’s is annoying business-as-usual for people with T1D, in which case, we take extra insulin to bring down BG level. Higher BG’s are less frequent and more dangerous. If it gets ~500+, there is an immediate medical danger, which can require emergency treatment if BG isn’t responding to home intervention, and symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or loss of consciousness develop. All of this information is to provide some context so those unfamiliar with BG management will understand the horror I felt when I read that Michael’s BG was 2500 when he finally received medical intervention.

To my knowledge, the DOC (diabetes online community) has not had significant dialogue about the relationship between BLM and diabetes. In my experience, the DOC culture dictates that diabetes is our thing, and everything else is your thing. Historically, the them in the us/them dichotomy is another disease, for instance, cancer, which manifests itself as frustration that one disease generates more media attention, more donation, more research funding, more sympathy, etc. than diabetes, which is par for the course in our capitalistic society. Many people with T1D don’t even want to be associated with type 2 diabetes, and won’t fund raise or donate to the American Diabetes Association because ADA also supports people with T2D. This same us/them framework is now at play with BLM, and the aversion to “mixing” issues informs the response to the assertion that Robinson died from ableism compounded by racism.

One could dispute my observation that most of the DOC has disregarded BLM, but consider the following. It is ironic that the DOC will occasionally collude in rage when someone or some entity misrepresents diabetes, and it’s not unusual for people to express frustration that others don’t know or care about diabetes, but how is the DOC building bridges to other causes that are worthy of outrage? The DOC wants everyone to care and be knowledgeable about diabetes, but suggest they learn about something like racial justice, and how that specifically relates to living with diabetes, and they scoff. To add to the irony, T2D is a scourge among people of color, so diabetes advocacy should be inextricably linked to BLM. In fact, if diabetes advocates and BLM activists collaborated with vegan activists, we could be a model for dismantling racism, ableism, and carnism (the ideology that animals exist for humans to use). For those people whose diabetes advocacy is solely focused on T1D, I encourage you to consider that such a collaborative effort would also benefit people with T1D since the larger conversation about diabetes could shift, and with a decrease in T2D incidence, resources for treatment and research could be redistributed.

Collaborative aspirations aside, the current reality is that the response to Michael Robinson’s death has gone far to reinforce my impression that the DOC perceives BLM as irrelevant. The difficulty of discussing comments that were offered in these discussions is that some of the commenters are my friends, or friends of friends – great people with huge hearts whose friendships I value. That being the case, I’ve tried to capture the essence of the comments without direct quotes to preserve anonymity.

I want to preface by saying that the conversation was not one-sided. Some people expressed committment to the idea that Robinson’s death was a result of diabetes discrimination compounded by racism. There were also a number of tempered responses, recognizing that one can’t definitively know either way how race impacted his treatment in jail, but that it probably played a role. However others vehemently denied that race had anything to do with Robinson’s death. It was suggested that the only cause of Robinson’s death was jailers’ lack of knowledge about diabetes, nothing more, nothing less. To reinforce this position, a list of names of individuals with diabetes, who were mostly white, and had suffered injury or death in police custody was offered. Others agreed, emphasizing that PWD of all races are harmed in police custody, invalidating that Robinson’s blackness was a contributing factor to his death. Of course, this is the equivalent of claiming #AllLivesMatter in response to #BlackLivesMatter, a critique of which is offered here, here, here, and many other places. My position was that this is not a zero-sum game in which Robinson’s death earns 100 attention tokens that have to be divided, or not, between diabetes and racism. People can recognize both, without denying or diminishing the effort to address one or the other. The final outcome of that conversation was essentially, “agree to disagree,” falling short of advancing justice, which is why I was compelled to examine this issue here.

What some people do not know, or are disregarding is that the family, who created Facebook and GoFundMe pages, is committed to the idea that Robinson’s blackness contributed to his death, and this is a #BlackLivesMatter issue. Isn’t it likely that Robinson almost certainly experienced his mistreatment in jail as a manifestation of racism? If he could magically send us a signed affidavit from beyond, stating as much, I’m certain that not only would many white people still deny that race was a factor, since black people have consistently been denied the authority to interpret and narrate their own experience, but I assert that they would likely call Robinson a racist for claiming race contributed to his death!

To emphasize the point that white people are denying black people’s interpretations of their own experience, in another online discussion, a friend shared that she had participated in a conversation in which people questioned whether the details of the story were even true. She suggested that had it been a young white woman who had died, the details wouldn’t even be doubted. After all, white people are experts on interpreting history, right? We can look no further than Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and the continued whitewashing of US history textbooks to see what experts we are. A couple of days later, I asked this friend for a link to the discussion because I wanted to read it in its entirety for the sake of offering more comprehensive analysis here. She told me the discussion had been deleted by the group admin, presumably because it became heated. Whatever the motive for deleting the discussion, the end result is maintaining the comfort of white people who become defensive when faced with questions about racism, and preserving the white narrative that there’s no racism to see here.

I also have to thank another friend for her astute observation that the DOC failed to respond to Robinson’s death in the same way it responds when anyone else with T!D dies. Normally, my Facebook feed will be filled with images of lighted blue candles to honor the loss of someone with T1D. Many people will change their profile pictures to blue candles, and many people will share the person’s story in an effort to raise awareness among their friends and family about the dangers of T1D. I have to credit one more friend who created and shared a meme to honor Robinson. It’s significant that this friend’s family is mixed race though. As far as I could tell, almost no one shared the meme. For a community in which shit goes viral when people care (remember the Crossfit nonsense?), why should I not conclude that no one cares about Robinson? Even people who deny race was a factor, and insisted his cause of death as discrimination against diabetes, didn’t write blog posts, didn’t share memes, didn’t do much of anything other than argue that race was irrelevant.

Oakland #blacklivesmatter by akaruna
Oakland #blacklivesmatter by akaruna

It is important to note that the discussion participants were almost all white. Would it have been valuable to hear the perspectives of more people of color, especially black people? Absolutely. Am I going to solicit the black people I know in the DOC to get those perspectives? Hell, no. It’s not their responsibility to call out every racial microaggression on the internet. By listening/reading, and judiciously participating in predominantly black online spaces, my intention is to take what I’ve learned back to white spaces, and try to decenter the white perspective, challenge white fragility, and disrupt white privilege, in as much as I’m able as a white person. It might not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s something positive I can do to support #BlackLivesMatter.

My primary intention here was to examine DOC conversations, as I experienced them, or as they were described to me, to expose how racism, specifically anti-blackness emerged in the white-centered commentary on Michael Robinson’s death. I thought it valuable to explore my privilege, and evolution from unquestioning, “colorblind,” self-perceived anti-racist, to more critical, reflective anti-racist who has more questions than answers, and is quick to look for black-centered perspectives on issues since black people are the authority on their experiences. This is a work in progress for me. The greatest obstacle to being a supportive ally to #BlackLivesMatter is thinking I have it figured it out. After all, how can I be an expert on something I haven’t lived? I share this post as a way of inviting white friends to start listening and questioning, and to seek out black-centered perspectives rather than imposing white-centered interpretations.

One of the ideas that it seems some white people struggle to comprehend is the insidious nature of systemic racism, and systemic oppression in general. Our privilege informs our perspective, and we can learn to recognize when that filter is distorting our view. Americans live in a country that was literally built on the backs of people of color, but since it’s all we know, we fail to recognize its influence. We can’t see the forest for the trees. Racism is not just scary white men in white hoods burning crosses, or Confederate flag bumper stickers. Its less obvious manifestations are vague, and sometimes difficult to extract from complicated real world situations, but that doesn’t relieve white people of the responsibility to at least try to identify it. If we don’t, racism will persist. If we balk at the very notion that we, the white liberals, might be saying and doing racist things, racism will persist. If we insist on dictating to black people what is and is not racism, racism will persist. Our black and brown family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues’ lives are in the balance, so it’s time to stop denying, start looking in the mirror, and maybe start by acknowledging that Michael Robinson was a victim of diabetes discrimination compounded by racism.

The DOC’s racial bias is a reflection of the larger healthcare culture, which emerged from a jaw-dropping history of racism in healthcare, and exists within a society that is characterized by racial bias. In my experience, the DOC is not racist in an epithet-slinging way, but until we begin to identify, discuss and call out the less overt manifestations of racism, we will be perpetuating it. I believe the DOC is capable of this too based on the outstanding work of highly regarded Hispanic diabetes advocates who have created community spaces for those who speak Spanish. In this regard, the DOC has demonstrated a commitment to inclusivity. That being said, creating separate spaces for people who speak Spanish is different from creating spaces that feel accessible to black people.

Earlier I said that I have more questions than answers about race. Would it be useful to have designated spaces for people who are black and have diabetes? Why does there appear to be a persistent shortage of black voices in the DOC? Is it only the responsibility of black diabetes advocates to address racism in the DOC? If black people are under-represented in the DOC – as they seem to be – are white people absolved of addressing racism? Isn’t it a vicious cycle – lack of black voices to address racism perpetuates racism which discourages black voices? How do we extract ourselves from that vicious cycle? What is it about the DOC that it has become a space with so few black voices? What would it be like to have a diabetes advocacy event (IRL or online) that was focused on the black experience, but all advocates were encouraged to join to learn from and celebrate black voices on diabetes? In regards to #BlackLivesMatter, other questions emerge. What would it look like for diabetes advocates to collectively support BLM? What would it be like for diabetes advocates to engage with BLM protests? How could diabetes advocacy be enhanced by engaging with BLM?

I am not suggesting there are obvious or easy answers to these questions. I am suggesting that these are important questions though, and the difficulty of addressing them is not an excuse to ignore them. As long as there is denial that racism is a problem for black people with diabetes, as long as there is denial that racism is a problem in healthcare, and thus, a problem in the DOC, then racism will continue, in the DOC, in healthcare, and everywhere.

MLK March in Oakland, CA by Daniel Arauz
MLK March in Oakland, CA by Daniel Arauz

Disclaimer: I have made generalizations here. I have discussed a community made of individuals, so naturally, there are outliers. Not everyone in the DOC is 100% diabetes, 100% of the time. Many friends have been inspiring supporters of LGBTQ rights, some identify as feminists, and a few have shared BLM content. My overall impression though, is that the DOC is not connecting to BLM, with the acknowledgement that I can’t possibly keep track of everyone’s social media activity. It’s also relevant that most of my DOC friends are white.

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 2

Untitled image, accompanying article, 'Killing for a Living'
Untitled image, accompanying article, ‘Killing for a Living’

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 1

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. ― William James

The Indignity of Being Made Invisible

In April, I posted an essay describing the inherent problems of inviting Temple Grandin to be the keynote speaker at the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) 2015 conference which took place in Minneapolis earlier in July. The essence of my protest centered on the contradictions between Grandin’s longstanding career in animal agriculture, and values of the art therapy profession, such as facilitating healing, promoting wellness, and advancing social justice.

As a celebrity spokesperson and leader in animal agribusiness, Grandin promotes and participates in a system of oppression characterized by: (1) the unnecessary use and torture of nonhuman animals based on anthropocentric constructs that objectify and commodify nonhuman animal lives because they are deemed dis-abled (Nocella, Bentley & Duncan, 2012), and thus, not lives with inherent value; (2) gendered violence, such as the forced removal of calves from mother cows to take their milk, use of “rape racks” (an industry term) to forcibly impregnate cows used in the dairy/veal industry, and systematic, forced semen collection from bulls; (2) environmental destruction and injustices, including natural resource depletion, such as water scarcity, which more adversely impact low-income people of color (POC); (3) evidence suggesting an association between animal product consumption and lifestyle diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, which also disproportionately affect POC; and (4) a mire of psychosocial ills, such as PTSD, domestic violence, and substance abuse, that affect low-income, disproportionately POC who are charged with committing violence against animals in the “cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption” (Adams, 2010, p. 73) that puts “meat” on people’s plates. “Meat” is in quotes to emphasize that it is not a thing unto itself, but fragmented, disembodied animals; my intention is to make the “absent referent” (Adams, 2010, p. 66), present.

In short, animal agriculture is a steaming pile of interrelated institutionalized oppressions and structural violence, most notably, speciesism, carnism (Joy, 2012), racism, classism, sexism, ableism, consumerism, and environmental oppression. If you’re inclined to dig into that steaming pile, you’ll also find sizeism, ageism, lookism, heterosexism, colonialism, and nativism. Animal agriculture is based on oppressing others, so the surprise is less from the extent of the –isms, but more from the cultural conditioning that dissuades us from examining, challenging, and opposing it. It is worth emphasizing that these oppressions, as they manifest in animal agriculture, do not exist independently from how these oppressions exist elsewhere. For example, we cannot dismantle sexism as it is more commonly recognized (i.e. pay inequity, over representation of men in politics, regulating reproductive rights, sexual objectification of women, etc.), and declare society post-sexist, while animal agriculture depends on sexism to manipulate the reproduction of animals. As long as sexism exists in animal agriculture, sexism is culturally reinforced and will proliferate.

I know it’s a lot to take in, and “privilege resists self-examination” (Adams, 2010, p. 22). I fully disclose that becoming vegan turned my worldview upside down. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how I could be so oblivious to the devastating consequences of the roast chickens, salmon steaks, bacon cheeseburgers, and scrambled eggs I used to eat. I’m also still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I used to proudly, defiantly claim that I loved chicken too much to become vegetarian, but now joyfully share that I’m vegan because I love chickens too much. I was as much a victim of carnism as anyone. According to Joy (2012):

Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism; “carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh” and “ism” denotes a belief system. Most people view eating animals as a given, rather than a choice; in meat-eating cultures around the world people typically don’t think about why they find the flesh of some animals disgusting and the flesh of other animals appetizing, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals is not a necessity for survival, as is the case in much of the world today, it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs.

Despite the institutionalized “three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary” (Joy, 2012), the fact remains that it is an ideological choice. However, it is not, as most people presume, a “personal choice” without consequences. As a point of comparison, whether you wear your hair short or long, or hang your toilet paper over or under are personal choices. All jokes aside about one’s toilet paper hanging preferences, these choices have negligible, if any, effect on others. When one chooses to eat animals and their products however, there are victims – human animals, nonhuman animals, and the environment. In fact, Joy (2015) asserts that one who consumes animals and their products is themselves a victim of carnism by not making choices aligned with commonly held values of compassion and not causing harm to others. They are also a victim of the systemic oppressions that are reinforced by engaging in the consumption of animals and their excretions, as well as a victim or potential victim of the negative health effects associated with such.

In addition to understanding how the selection of Grandin to speak at the AATA conference is a manifestation and reinforcement of carnism, which in turn, reinforces other systemic oppressions, the conflict between the values of art therapy and Grandin’s work in animal agriculture is evident when one recognizes that art therapy is used to address the psychosocial distress experienced by people with medical conditions associated with animal product consumption, most notably cancer. Art therapy is also a clinically relevant intervention for people affected by PTSD, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Not only does it become incoherent that Grandin, who is a leader in an industry linked to these biopsychosocial afflictions, was invited to speak to the professionals who have a responsibility to treat these conditions, but it is plausible to wonder if AATA unintentionally reinforced the system that contributes to the problems art therapists have a role in treating by implicitly endorsing Grandin.

Many questions emerge as I reflect on these multilayered contradictions, and the responses to my protests. How were the systemic oppressions that characterize animal agriculture reflected in the individual and organizational responses I received? With a good faith assumption that no one intended to reinforce the harms of animal agriculture by inviting Grandin, once they came to light, should the conference organizers be held accountable? Does an organization representing the art therapy profession have a responsibility to invite event speakers whose business practices and affiliations are not inherently harmful? If that is their responsibility, but they fail to fulfill it, do they have a responsibility to respond in the spirit of transformative justice, and if so, what does that look like? What does it mean when the culture of a profession that functions to make the invisible, visible, the indecipherable, translatable, systematically denies injustices perpetrated by its invited keynote speaker by denying the voice of one of its own, thus making them invisible, and reinforcing the invisibility of the victims of the keynote speaker?

By examining what transpired since I posted the essay in April, along with analysis and personal reflections, my intention is to get to the heart of these questions. I’m still trying to make sense of this situation, and expect its lessons will extend into the future, so I wouldn’t assert that I have clear answers. Furthermore, it would certainly be valuable to foster dialogue with others as a means of exploring answers. My experience engaging with others thus far has been quite mixed, but the more constructive instances leave me optimistic. In the remaining installments of this series, I will examine organizational and individual responses to illustrate how carnist bias manifested itself in microaggressions which I experienced as efforts to diffuse, silence, and ultimately invalidate my protests. This will inform a discussion of culture competency as it relates to veganism, which opens up a discussion about how social justice is conceptualized and embodied within the profession, and how inviting Grandin undermines intersectionality, with specific exploration of ableism. I will then offer some recommendations for moving forward, as well as parting thoughts about art and imagery as they relate to these complex issues.

My ultimate intention is to challenge colleagues to broaden their conceptualization of social justice to include animals and the environment because the unquestioned anthropocentric bias that underlies AATA’s decision to invite Grandin is at the root of the interconnected –isms that plague the world. It is imperative that the art therapy profession position itself to be part of the solution rather than the problem, but that requires a paradigm shift in how we frame our relationship to others – human animals, nonhuman animals, and the environment. In the interest of adopting a liberatory praxis, the art therapy community is urged to explore new, possibly challenging ideas about intersectional justice based on ecofeminism and critical animal theory, which requires an examination of power and privilege in order to expand our collective circle of compassion. Thus, the profession that uncritically endorsed Grandin, whose work is based on objectifying others, is encouraged to understand that its philosophical origins in anthropocentrist humanism which underlie this endorsement, present two ironies. According to Weitzenfeld and Joy (2014), the first is the:

Dogmatic, irrational adherence to human exceptionalism despite empirical evidence of a continuum and multitude of species capabilities. The second is the inhumane history of exclusionary violence arising from the ranking, ordering, and molding of humankind. What is called dehumanization is made possible by defining the essence of humanity over and against all other animals. The human-animal binary and hierarchy has historically produced and may continue to reproduce a bloody margin of subhumans, thus contradicting humanism’s premise of the universality of freedom and dignity. (p. 6)

It follows that if the art therapy culture remains dogmatically and irrationally committed to human exceptionalism, which the unquestioned commitment to Grandin suggests, then it will ultimately be undermining universal freedom and dignity. In the interest of advancing the profession to better meet the needs of a complex world in which freedom and dignity allude those with less power and privilege, it is time to more closely examine how the circumstances related to Grandin as this year’s keynote speaker are not in the art therapy profession’s best interest, and certainly not in the interest of those who enlist our services.

Due to its length, this essay will be posted as a multipart series.

References

Adams, C. J. (2010). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory (20th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Joy, M. (2015). Beyond carnism and toward rational, authentic food choices. TedX Talk München. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0VrZPBskpg

Nocella, A. J., Bentley, J. K. C. & Duncan, J. M. (2012). Earth, animal, and disability liberation: The rise of the eco-ability movement. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Weitzenfeld, A. & Joy, M. (2014). An overview of anthropocentrism, humanism, and speciesism in critical animal theory. In A. J. Nocella, J. Sorenson, K. Socha & A. Matsuoka (Eds.), Defining critical animal studies: An intersectional social justice approach for liberation (pp. 3-27). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 1

Untitled image by Patrishe
Untitled image by Patrishe

They said, “You are a savage and dangerous woman.”
I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.
― Nawal El-Saadawi

Losing Sleep

I had one of those extra vivid, early morning dreams on Sunday:
I was on a group hike, sort of a team building activity, and part of the trail went into a tunnel. Once inside the tunnel, everyone stopped, and there was commotion to set up another activity, but I didn’t know what was happening. Cows started to emerge from the pitch black depths of the tunnel, their black fur shimmering, and dark eyes glistening as they stepped towards the light. The other people in the group started to kill them, slitting their throats, and pushing them down an incline towards the tunnel entrance. The group was laughing, and having a grand time; the atmosphere was charged and festive. I was horrified, and began to protest, so they started bullying me, corralling me closer to the cows as they were being killed, until I was alongside the cows as their throats were slit. I managed to escape, leaving them behind to slaughter the cows, and was trying to figure out how to return to town from the secluded, wooded area. Once I was back in town, I ran into the group again in a city plaza area with benches and a fountain. They were standing in a group, making fun of me, pointing and laughing. I became enraged, and ended up in a physical fight with a woman from the group. We were on the pavement, and I was hovering over her when I felt searing pain on my lower back. I turned to discover her friend was sitting on a bench next to us, putting out cigarettes on my back. I reached to touch them, and felt the burned flesh wounds, and sting of pain. I was overwhelmed and distressed, and I felt defeated that they were intent on doing harm. Then I woke up.

Later that morning, I was sipping my breakfast smoothie, and the dream came back to me. As I reflected on the details, and puzzled over its significance, it occurred to me that my dream represented my experience protesting the American Art Therapy Association‘s decision to invite Temple Grandin to be this year’s conference keynote speaker. The group I was with represented AATA and my colleagues. The cows represented the victims of Grandin, and those who support her work. Their laughter and disregard for the cows represented their refusal to recognize the cows as victims, and their complicity with Grandin. The altercation represented the multiple conversations I’ve had with AATA representatives and colleagues in which very few validated my concerns and feelings, and I was subjected to microaggressions. The cigarettes? It seemed odd, but then I recalled that a few days ago, I had seen an article in my Facebook newsfeed about how cigarettes and animal flesh consumption are comparably harmful to one’s health, inasmuch as the two can be compared. Perhaps the cigarettes were a metaphor for eating animals, and the burns on my back represented my general feeling of being burned by an organization and culture that I had trusted, to which I used to feel like I belonged. As I told my friends with whom I shared this dream, my experience protesting Grandin and the ensuing response has bruised me all the way to my unconscious.

This nightmare haunted me all of yesterday. Last night I lay in bed, feeling anxious about going to sleep, afraid that I might have another unsettling dream about animals being butchered. I wondered how to overcome the deep wounding I have experienced. I’ve made some art, which has offered some expressive relief. I’ve started more essays than I can count at this point, trying to weave together an account of events with thoughtful analysis, and reflections on my emotional experience. I’ve scrapped all but this one, another attempt to piece together something coherent, most of which I wrote prior to having the dream.

I eventually drifted to sleep, and thankfully, don’t recall any nightmares, but then I awoke much too early this morning, and couldn’t go back to sleep. I started ruminating over whether to complete this essay and post it. I’ve already spent two weeks writing and editing this, and it’s currently over 20 pages long. I presume I’ve damaged my professional reputation based on the feedback I’ve already received from colleagues, so do I want to go out on a limb again, and share this? Will I be able to sleep and not have anymore nightmares if I just keep it to myself? Why do I feel like I have to share this? What are the risks? What are the potential benefits?

I thought about the efforts to silence, diffuse, and redirect my protests, and I could feel my anger percolating. I also felt weary. My short experience as a vegan advocate has taught me that my efforts are most fruitful when directed toward people who are receptive. I’m going to have better luck inspiring the person who is doing Meatless Mondays, and concerned about the harms of animal consumption, than I will the person who thinks a bacon joke is a hilarious response to information about how sensitive and intelligent pigs are, or the person who has convinced themselves that killing animals more nicely, Grandin-style, is somehow helping them. Since it seems that many people in the AATA culture fall into the latter group, it follows that it might be better for my mental wellbeing to write them off, and throw my energy into affecting change elsewhere.

I even put my therapist hat on, and considered the dynamics from that perspective. People don’t change unless they want to change. It is the skilled therapist who works with a client to help them see themselves as capable of change, and thus, inspire them to make changes. Resistance to rethinking how we relate to animals is culturally ingrained – and every time one eats them, one is having a relationship with them – so guiding people towards that change is as complex and varied as guiding people towards other kinds of change in psychotherapy, more so in some respects. Then I considered the anger, sadness, and anxiety I’ve been having as a result of all of this, and it feels so countertransferential. It’s the anger, sadness, and anxiety that most people who eat animals and their products defend themselves against experiencing. I’m holding it because no one else will. If I don’t hold it, then the knot of injustices associated with AATA’s partnership with Grandin goes ignored, and if I ignore it, I am complicit. When I had that realization, I broke down in tears.

I’m sharing this essay because I need to process everything that’s happened, and blogging has been reliably beneficial for me in that respect. I’m sharing because the invitation to Grandin without thorough critical analysis of the implications, and the ensuing responses to my protests represent negligence to social justice, and a culture of relational aggression and exclusivity. I’m sharing because colleagues tried to silence and redirect me, invalidating the content of my ideas and my emotional response, and I’m pissed. I’m sharing despite the fact that some colleagues who liked me, or perhaps had a neutral opinion, will think less of me, and those who never knew me might categorically dismiss me now. I’m sharing in hopes that future keynote speakers will better represent justice for all, human animals, nonhuman animals, and the environment. I mean, can we talk about how AATA could go far in righting this wrong by inviting Carol J. Adams to present on sexism, racism, and speciesism in cultural imagery? I’m sharing in hopes that the art therapy culture can adopt a more inclusive circle of compassion, that not only recognizes vegan art therapists, but honors animals, the environment, and marginalized groups of people. I’m sharing because I need to sleep better at night.

Due to its length, this essay will be posted as a multipart series.

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 2

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: At the Crossroads


Crossroads by Carsten Tolkmit

When I first read the announcement that the American Art Therapy Association had invited Temple Grandin to be this year’s keynote speaker at our annual conference, I was shocked. After about a week of trying to process this information, my bubbling rage drove me to social media, calling AATA out for inviting a woman who has built a career on designing slaughterhouses, and partnering with animal agribusiness to destroy the environment, deplete natural resources, undermine public health, and exploit animals.

Initially, AATA seemed concerned with my opposition, not so much because they recognized they had made an error in judgement by inviting Grandin, but because I was making noise about it. Representatives from AATA promptly reached out to me. They listened to my concerns, but stated the keynote invitation would not be rescinded. I was strongly encouraged to attend the conference, and was offered an opportunity to have an individual meeting with Grandin. Having read some of her writings, I have a handle on her belief that animals are here for people to “humanely” exploit, which means any conversation would end with a cordial agree-to-disagree. Everyone and their mother-in-law rationalize animal exploitation, so I don’t need to hear her version of that first hand.

I was also told I could express my concerns at the social justice working group breakout session, and I was invited to join said working group. I asked for an opportunity to present an opposing position to the larger conference audience, not just the small social justice session, and I was denied. It seemed that the AATA representatives were also quite keen to learn what actions I might take moving forward. My general impression was that they recognized my criticisms as valid, but due to their refusal to rescind the invitation to Grandin, they wanted to keep me contained, which frankly, just made me angrier.

In the midst of this, it’s important for me to express that I love being an art therapist. While I have not always fully supported all the actions of my professional organization, they have been a source of community, and generally, I think they are trying to protect the interests of all who offer or receive art therapy, as well as steer the profession into the future, despite a difficult socioeconomic-political climate. I wouldn’t be a member if I didn’t want to support them, or if I thought it wasn’t to my advantage. My belief in AATA and the art therapy profession has been greatly challenged by their partnership with Grandin though.

In the weeks following the initial announcement, and the phone conversations with AATA representatives that occurred shortly thereafter, I have continued to use social media in hopes of generating interest among colleagues, finding allies willing to speak out against AATA’s invitation to Grandin, and eliciting an apology from AATA to its members. Sadly, except for a couple of colleagues who I would say are supportive from the sidelines, my colleagues have remained silent, which I understand might be because people are unsure how to respond, but the net effect is that I feel bewildered and alone. To point at what seems such a clear injustice to me, and perceive everyone as remaining in the neutral position, has been unnerving. Since I’m the lone voice of dissent, it appears that AATA is content to ignore me. As such, I was compelled to write this essay, partly as an expressive outlet about an issue that has been emotionally unsettling, and partly with the intention of reaching both art therapy colleagues and fellow animal rights activists who might find a call to action in my words.

My efforts to gain clarity and articulate all that is wrong about AATA partnering with Grandin led me to start digging into intersectionality. One of the most disturbing aspects of Grandin’s narrative about animals is the role of disability, a term I use with the disclaimer that I have read conflicting opinions about whether it demeans or empowers those whose abilities are not represented by the majority. It likely goes without saying that she wasn’t invited to be keynote because she kills animals for a living; she was invited because she has autism, participates in autism advocacy, and can be called “successful” by majority standards due to her academic and professional accomplishments within the context of having autism, a description I use loosely since her work is contingent on killing animals. Since I’m new to intersectionality, my assessment might be a little rough around the edges, but Grandin asserts that her disability enables her to identify with cows, who are differently abled compared to humans. Ironically though, she plays the I’m-less-differently-abled-than-you-are power card to justify committing violence against them, rather than recognize them as beings with inherent rights, perpetuating the notion that it’s natural and justifiable to oppress beings whose abilities aren’t recognized as “normal” and consistent with the majority. The absurdity doesn’t stop there though.

Another point that has been alarming about AATA’s partnership with Grandin is the incoherent standards applied to individuals who commit violence against animals. If an individual presents to an art therapist with designs for slaughtering animals, this would be regarded as a red flag for psychopathology. The individual would be considered high risk for violence, not just towards animals, but also humans, and ongoing evaluation and treatment would be recommended. Grandin is an individual who does exactly that – develops designs for the systemic slaughter of animals – which undoubtedly requires a lot of creative thinking about how to “best” kill someone, yet, because she does it under the guise of “animal science,” in partnership with animal agribusiness, not only is her behavior deemed socially acceptable, but she’s welcomed with open arms to present to a group of mental health professionals, who would recommend treatment under different circumstances.

Aside from that matter of splitting hairs over pathological versus “acceptable” violence towards animals, the inconsistencies between what the art therapy profession should aspire to be, and how it presents itself in partnering with Grandin pile up. Animal product consumption is associated with several forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, and the research linking it to health problems continues to amass. Art therapy is a well-regarded treatment for addressing the complex psychological issues of cancer patients. Inviting Grandin, partner with animal agribusiness, the products of which are associated with cancer, to speak to a group, some of whom treat cancer patients is a blatant conflict of interest. Additionally, research shows that slaughterhouse workers are at higher risk for substance abuse, and violent behavior, systemic mental health issues that the art therapy profession has a clear responsibility to alleviate, not perpetuate.

Another conflict of interest is evident when examining AATA’s document for standards of ethical practice. AATA delineates beneficence as one of art therapy’s ethical principles, yet they invited a keynote speaker whose entire career is devoted to violence towards animals, which inherently results in violence towards Earth, and violence towards humans. They reap what the sow, after all, but according to art therapy’s ethical guidelines, art therapists have a responsibility to not be complicit in causing harm.

This year’s conference theme, Bridging Cultural Terrain, is somewhat laughable when critically examined. Although terrain is used metaphorically, it behooves me to point out that our actual terrain is being utterly decimated by Grandin and her animal agribusiness partners. The lovely graphic representing the theme that illustrates conference-related materials even includes water under the bridge; it is widely known that California is in the midst of an unprecedented drought while 47% of their water supply goes towards animal agriculture. Furthermore, AATA’s complicity with carnism, the ideology that justifies the systemic oppression of animals, the lack of awareness of intersectionality, and their ease at dismissing my concerns as “not aligned with the majority of members” (paraphrased response from an AATA representative), completely contradicts AATA’s supposed efforts to advance a paradigm of inclusion, or as they like to say, Bridging Cultural Terrain.

I have ruminated over these ideas for weeks. I have lain awake at night trying to identify how to respond and affect change. I have cried, wondering how my professional organization and colleagues have seemingly shrugged off my concerns, leaving me feeling disregarded and marginalized for my belief system. Much like the cows who are victims of Grandin’s slaughterhouses, I am beside myself that my colleagues are calmly proceeding to their moral slaughter, blindly exacerbating multiple systems of oppression, unquestioningly led by AATA through the chutes of carnism, without being provided an updated, progressive, more inclusive view.

The AATA representatives were anxious to know my next move. I have a lot of ideas, but no specific plans. As the conference draws closer, I have amped up my social media protest, although AATA remains unresponsive. I’m wondering how to engage the animal rights community on this, not to challenge Grandin because she’s too invested in exploiting animals, but to challenge the art therapy community. Pardon my generalization, but art therapists aren’t exactly the Fox News watching crowd, so I think many could be open to broadening their circles of compassion. The profession requires creative, empathetic, sensitive, insightful, open-minded, critically thoughtful individuals, many of whom I hope will recognize the problems I have described. As far as I can tell, they haven’t been presented a coherent analysis, such as the one I’ve attempted to compose here, of why AATA should have a generous slice of vegan humble pie, and offer an apology to members. I hope that after considering the position I am presenting, people will begin to come forward to work with me to peacefully protest Grandin in the short term, but much more importantly, apply what can be learned from this debacle moving beyond the conference.

I’m guessing that the AATA representatives might be regretting that they encouraged me to attend the conference. I can’t say that’s not a fair response. Registration and related travel expenses are considerable, so that’s something I have to figure out, but aside from that practical matter, as much as I loathe the idea of giving them money so they can pay Grandin’s hefty fee, I feel like it could be my best opportunity to properly protest. The emails from AATA touting “record breaking registration” churn my stomach as I imagine my colleagues falling over themselves to be graced by the presence of the animal agribusiness’s golden girl with her ludicrous narrative that autism has given her magic powers to know how cows really want to die. On behalf of the environment, and human and nonhuman animals, I feel like I should be there.

Regardless of what I do next though, I’m reminded that art therapists, despite the unique qualities that led them to dedicate themselves to a career of service, are just like everyone else, myself included until I made the transition to veganism. Like everyone who isn’t raised vegan, they adhere to an unrecognized, unexamined carnist ideology, hungrily subscribing to devastatingly incoherent narratives, such as those offered by Grandin, as a means of silencing any emergent misgivings about slaughtering animals for pleasure. It’s an alluring fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless, and we must subject it to critical examination.

If the art therapy community is truly dedicated to Bridging Cultural Terrain, we have a responsibility to do better, to live lives characterized by justice for all, to recognize that our choices affect others, and to act accordingly. I urge the art therapy community to be less star struck by Grandin, and more dumbstruck that she was invited without full consideration for how the harms she perpetrates contradict all we should aspire to be.

Note: This essay weaves together ideas that are clear to me, as well as ideas I’m still working through. Although my conscious intention was to use the crossroads as a metaphor for where the art therapy profession can go in response to the keynote speaker issue as described in the essay, I’m also deep in thought about my own place at the crossroads, trying to make sense of where I am going as an art therapist.

We Can… Choose







When we hear the word ‘adolescence,’ people typically think of the human stage of development, and likely, their own bittersweet memories of youth. In the world of psychology, adolescence is characterized by identity formation, discovery of one’s place in the world, separation from authority figures and power structures, risk-taking and rapid maturity.

It’s interesting to see some of these features of the human developmental stage manifest themselves in the development of groups and organizations though. Some people, based on their experience with different organizations, businesses, or groups, especially younger, less established ones, might recognize similar dynamics. It’s not uncommon for nascent groups to come to a point when they struggle with such questions as: Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? As a mental health provider, I find it fascinating to see some of these developmental dynamics associated with individuals manifest themselves in group development. The universality of these processes is intriguing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was preparing to be a guest on the Diabetes Social Media Advocacy podcast to discuss veganism. For anyone who needs some context, I used to be very active in diabetes social media advocacy, but for various reasons, I’ve drifted away. Recently, I started thinking more deeply about the connections between veganism and diabetes, wondering how to re-engage with the diabetes online community on this topic. Being a guest on the DSMA Live podcast was an important opportunity to reconnect with my peers, and hopefully, begin a conversation that I’m excited to have.

As I was thinking about the intersection of diabetes and veganism, I thought about the culture of the diabetes online community, in which bacon and cupcake jokes have become staples. In fact, at one in-person gathering several years ago, before veganism was even on my radar, we feasted on bacon cupcakes. It has been my experience and observation that when people with diabetes gather, they purposefully structure activities to include food that is decidedly unhealthy: bacon, cupcakes, hamburgers, fries, cheese, ice cream, donuts. Which is not to say I don’t eat vegan versions of these foods now, but I think it’s worth reconsidering our consumption of the animal-based versions. Without these animal-based foods, a PWD gathering is not considered a fitting party, and there’s grumbling about having “healthy” food imposed on us. Because people in the community come from all over, on the infrequent occasions we gather, quite understandably, everyone is in the mood to celebrate togetherness, but over the years, the junkiest of mostly animal-based foods have become an inherent part of the party. This is the culture.

For the outside observer, likely influenced by diabetes standards of care of yore, this likely sounds peculiar. I think some history is warranted here. Until 1921, type 1 diabetes was a death sentence. Insulin was discovered, and it was the only treatment, supplemented by diet and exercise programs. From the 1920’s until about the early 1990’s, give or take, most people with diabetes were prescribed a diet that generally forbid sweets, or at least, reluctantly suggested they be consumed infrequently and in small quantities. Then new insulins and new dietary management philosophies emerged that have become the standard of today. A person who takes insulin can generally eat whatever they want, but they count the carbohydrates, and based on that number, calculate an insulin dose to counteract the food’s effect on one’s blood sugar.

Most people who do not live with, or care for someone with diabetes, do not understand this. A lot of people with diabetes get frustrated that misconceptions based on older management techniques persist, often manifesting themselves as presumptive, seemingly intrusive comments about what someone with diabetes can and cannot eat. After years of being aggravated by such interactions, I’ve adopted a laid back approach to responding, reminding myself that people either don’t know or might be curious, but each PWD has their own level of patience and style of response for dealing with usually well-intended comments or questions.

This brings me back to adolescence, and the culture of eating heavily animal-based food that persists within the diabetes community, which is a barrier to receptivity to plant-based eating. I feel like the best way to understand the junk food party that typically unfolds at gatherings of people from the diabetes online community is to frame it as an adolescent-like group response to: (1) the decades of restrictive diets that were once a staple of diabetes management, and (2) the ongoing public misconceptions that such restrictive diets are still standard. , Within a developmental framework, the natural response from people with type 1 diabetes to prevalent misconceptions that amount to, “You can’t eat that,” is to say, “Don’t tell me what to do. Yes, I can. Watch me.”

The benefits, if you will, of the junk food parties are that people have fun, and it enhances a sense of community. Having participated in such parties, we revel in the hilarity and irony of a bunch of PWD standing in line at the cupcake shop. There’s something immensely gratifying to do exactly what people think you shouldn’t do, or wouldn’t expect you to do, without regard for the health consequences. Sounds a little adolescent, right? Then there’s the hangover from socially pressured impulsivity and overindulgence. We fuss with our insulin dosage to correct the fat and sugar overdose, but anyone who’s been there, done that, knows that there’s as much guesswork as science to adjusting insulin, so recovering from the cupcake (or burger or milkshake or donuts or…) often has consequences in the form of erratic blood sugars for hours afterwards. But consequences be damned, colluding with each other to have a good time and maintain the culture is what’s most important. We couldn’t possibly reconsider our culture, and the implications of our choices, right?

People want to have a good time, so what? There are health implications of these kinds of indulgences, but we get together very infrequently for the most part. Unfortunately, almost none my diabetes friends are vegan, so these junk food parties are within the larger context of regular animal product consumption, which is associated with vascular disease which kills most people with diabetes. Call me a worry wart, call me selfish, but I’m afraid of losing my friends with diabetes to complications they potentially could have prevented or managed with plant-based eating.

Looking again at the developmental framework, I’d love to see a change in diabetes culture, transitioning away from the adolescent-like stage, characterized by thinking about food in terms of “can” and “can’t,” and instead, taking a more mature approach, thinking about foods we “choose,” giving mindful consideration to why we choose or don’t choose to eat something. I believe part of this is learning more about the detrimental health effects of eating animal-based products (check out Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine for more information).

For decades, PWD were told they couldn’t eat like everyone else. Certainly, that’s how I grew up. Now, it seems we want to eat as poorly as everyone else, if not in our day-to-day lives, it certainly happens when PWD get together. Just because we have newer insulins, and we “can” eat a certain way, is that really what we want to choose for ourselves? Is the Standard American Diet (SAD) really our goal? Did we get away from the perpetual list of forbidden foods to embrace the diet that is contributing to epidemics of diseases? Is anyone willing to consider a third option?

Why aren’t we choosing foods in the interest of personal health that have been shown to be optimal for vascular health? We work so hard to manage our blood sugars, with the hope that we will live longer than the less-than-average lifespan predicted for PWD, but why are we aspiring to eat the SAD instead of choosing a way of eating that will protect the environment so we have a world in which to live? And lastly, as a group of people with a recognized disability (I intend to come back to this particular issue after I do some more reading), people who are marginalized, misunderstood, and maligned for having bodies that require insulin to survive, we should be collaborating to undermine systemic oppression in all its forms. Animals are also victims of oppression for not having certain abilities. What does it say about us that we are perpetrating oppression against them for being different, when we fight so hard to get our special needs met?

So, yes, we “can” eat what we want, but isn’t it time we aspire to something greater? Let’s choose with intention – for others, for the environment, for health.

My Story

I started this blog with great plans, but it’s remained mostly untouched. I’ve been having some bloggy urges lately though, so going with it today. I’ll see where it goes beyond this.

I was just going to keep it to myself that today is the 5th anniversary of my father’s suicide. I couldn’t identify the value of sharing, and worried about how it might come across. I value birthdays and anniversaries of all kinds, but it’s easier to share a happy occasion or milestone, with the hope of friends celebrating with me, in spirit with well wishes. Sharing sad milestones is a different matter. It’s essentially asking friends to be sad with me, even for a passing moment, and a reminder to them that life is difficult, as if they don’t have enough of those reminders in their own lives. I relied heavily on my friends via social media in the weeks following my father’s suicide, and had this sense that I had already asked too much of people to be there for me.

There is also the issue I have had most years on this day: what is an appropriate, meaningful way to recognize this life-altering tragedy? The first year, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Texas from my home in New Jersey, to see my family and visit his grave. That is my favorite way to spend the day. My favorite? Most meaningful sounds better, but either way, you know what I mean. I think I did the Texas trip one other year, but after five years, I’m starting to lose track of what I’ve done each year. I couldn’t go this year because of my teaching schedule, so I’m at home with Husband. When I told him, he asked if I needed anything, if there was something I wanted to do, or if I needed to talk. I shrugged. I don’t know what I need, so I don’t know what to ask for… well, more accurately, what I need is for my father to not have committed suicide, but what is a suitable, more realistic second choice?

It was, by chance, a friend who posted a link to this article, “Getting Grief Right,” today. Timing is a funny thing. After I had decided to keep the anniversary of my father’s death off of Facebook, my go-to social media platform of choice, this article changed my mind.

As described in the article, after the weeks following a loss have passed, everyone who grieves with or for you moves on, so there’s a sense that it’s time for the bereaved person to also move on. In my case, the funeral was over, the metal grave place marker was replaced with a gravestone, his belongings were sorted and boxed. He was boxed. “The last casserole dish” was delivered. I had to move on, so I did, to the “new normal,” as people told me would happen.

This is my new normal. I still have moments of sadness, anger, regret, confusion, isolation, envy for people who have good, lasting relationships with their father, something I can’t exactly say I had. My basement is still loaded with boxes of his belongings… well, technically, my belongings now. We’re trying to declutter, so I want to get rid of a lot of it, but I’m scared of erasing him, so as time passes, there’s also fear. However, what most burdens me is this unbearable wish to go back in time for a do-over. It makes my heart hurt as intensely as it hurt during those first days and weeks. Searing pain, a tight chest, tears, lost breaths.

What good does it do to share it? The grief never goes away after all. Time changes it ever so slightly from one year to the next, but the narrative is essentially the same. It’s my narrative though. It’s my story. I need to keep telling it.

Sad

This is the third or maybe fourth time I’ve tried to write this post. I’m having difficulty finding the words, and this far in, my eyes are already tearing up. Maybe this will be clumsy, but I wouldn’t keep trying to express it if it didn’t need to be said. This is partly why I created this blog after all, the blog I’ve barely posted on because my emotions are messy, which muddles my thoughts.

Overall, being vegan makes me happy. I feel like I’m living the life I’m supposed to be living. I wake up every day with an intention to live peacefully in the world, and then I go out and do just that. I think part of the reason my emotions are so messy is because I’m happy living a vegan life, but I don’t have anyone with whom to share that joy, not anyone who gets it. Usually we associate bottled up emotions with sadness and anger, but suppressing excitement and joy for lack of an opportunity to openly celebrate it is a lonely experience.

I didn’t set out to write about how happy I am now that I’m vegan though. Loneliness isn’t only an outcome of not having anyone in my life with whom I can share joy. I’m lonely because I’m surrounded by family and friends, continuing their lives as carnists. I’m continuously pained to witness animals being harmed. It pains me to see people post pictures of meals made with a chicken, hamburgers, and milkshakes on Facebook. It pains me to read posts by people advocating paleo diets, talking about giving children dairy products, requesting egg recipes. I try to put these out of my head, but they linger, and I can’t help but imagine the animals suffering. It pains me to go to social events and watch people I care about, people who I’ve always known to be caring, eating the corpses and secretions of beings who deserved better. It pains me to sit politely and quietly as a group of friends makes jokes and laughs heartily about bacon, as if the pigs are nobodies, when I know they are somebodies. In my own home, I’ve offered several non-dairy yogurts to my husband, and after trying a few to appease me, he drew his line, and said he only wants the yogurt I used to buy, creamy cow suffering in 6-oz. plastic cups.

I’m the oddball, living according to my values of compassion and non-violence, but living amid acts of violence towards animals perpetuated by people I care about, acts of violence endorsed by society, wears me down at times. I guess I have to suck it up since divorcing Hubs, disowning family, and cutting ties with all my friends aren’t realistic solutions. I don’t know what to do about the pain I feel for the animals that are objectified and consumed around me at every turn though. I want people around me to feel inspired to make changes, but I don’t expect it. I don’t expect that at all. I’m making vegan connections online and in my area so I have some sense of community, and that’s helping, but in my day-to-day life, I’m alone, and I don’t know how to keep my grief for the animals from weighing on me as heavily as it does. I’m happy to no longer be contributing to death and suffering, but now that I’m aware, I see it all around me, and I’m sad.

Untitled by Y'amal
Untitled by Y’amal

Southwestern Spaghetti

One of bigger challenges I have encountered since embracing veganism is the fact that Husband wants to continue eating animal products. Satisfying solutions aren’t always easy because I want to be fair and respectful to him, and I want to compromise because I value my marriage, but I also want to be fair and practice compassion towards animals. I have read some articles and discussions about managing this conflict of interests – some helpful, some less so because people can be really nasty about non-vegan spouses/partners. I’ve also listened to podcasts by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau that have addressed this issue for guidance and ideas. The most helpful kernels of wisdom that have emerged for me are to be patient, compassionate, remember that I too was a carnist (so I can identify with his current attitudes and beliefs), and that delicious food is my best advocacy tool.

One of our long-standing food habits has been eating frozen meals for weekday lunches. Since going vegan, I rarely eat these kinds of convenience foods anymore. I still keep one or two vegan frozen meals in the freezer, but usually I’ll have leftovers of something I’ve cooked, or a PBJ. Hubs has continued to rely on frozen meals for lunches though. The ones he likes all have meat, and I have continued to buy those for him. Naturally, I would prefer not to buy them, but I am trying to focus on the positive changes he has made, while I identify possible alternatives that will make us both happy.

One idea I had was to make more meals that could be portioned into single servings, frozen, and easily taken to work, since delicious food is the best advocacy tool. When I suggested this to him, he was receptive. Although he’s not making a conscious effort to reduce meat, he does want to eat more fruits and veggies, and fewer processed foods. This recipe for Southwestern Spaghetti was our trial recipe, and he really liked it. He took it for lunch a couple of days last week, and also had it for dinner a couple of times. We’re making this up as we go, and trying to figure out how to compromise on these new issues, but delicious food is something we can agree on.

Southwestern Spaghetti
Southwestern Spaghetti

Southwestern Spaghetti

2 tablespoons evoo
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, crushed or minced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 lb. zucchini, coarsely chopped
1 can diced chili peppers
1 can pinto beans
15 oz. can crushed tomatoes, fire-roasted
15 oz. can diced tomatoes, fire-roasted
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 package Upton’s Naturals Chorizo Seitan (or other vegan meat of choice)
10 oz. spaghetti
Daiya pepperjack shreds

1. Saute onion and bell peppers in evoo until vegetables begin to soften.
2. Add zucchini, and continue to cook until zucchini softens.
3. Add chili peppers, beans, tomatoes, spices and seitan. Allow to simmer for 20-30 minutes.
4. Cook spaghetti until al dente.
5. Remove vegetables from heat. Add spaghetti, and combine.
6. Serve with Daiya shreds.

* I was going to make this a casserole, mixing in cheese and baking as a last step, but the night I made it, it ended up being too late, so I didn’t bake it. We’ve been serving it with vegan cheese sprinkled on top and reheated. I think the cheese is much better when it’s melted.

Southern-Style Vegan Banana Pudding

Vegan Southern-Style Banana Pudding
Vegan Southern-Style Banana Pudding

Generally speaking, I can’t say that I’ve ever been a huge fan of pudding. On the hierarchy of desserts, pudding generally falls far down the list, below cake, cookies, ice cream, and pie. Pudding is generally just sort of ok. Unless it’s bread pudding, which can be pretty fabulous, when done well. The other exception is Southern-style banana pudding.

I have very fond memories of eating banana pudding at diabetes summer camp. Back in those darker ages of diabetes management, before insulin to carb ratios allowed us to dose based on carbohydrate count, “sweets” were an infrequent treat, and most camp desserts consisted of fruit. Today, I appreciate fruit far more than I did as a kid. Summer fruits, those ripe, succulent berries and juicy stone fruits, are one of the things I love most about summer. I forever long for the unadulterated pleasure of biting into a perfectly ripened peach on a hot summer day. However, as a kid with type 1 diabetes, fruit could be disappointing, and in some circumstances, kind of felt like a punishment: “We’re going to eat cookies, but your pancreas sucks, so have an apple.” At diabetes camp, where the entire experience was to help us feel as normal as possible, banana pudding, with it’s gorgeous layers of fresh banana slices and vanilla wafers, represented normalcy.

As much I loved my diabetes camp banana pudding, I never made a sincere effort to replicate it at home. Until last night, the only pudding I had ever made was from a Jello instant boxed mix with cow’s milk, and that was an eternity ago, with decidedly meh results as I recall. I had certainly never attempted homemade pudding, so only had vague notions about the ingredients of traditional dairy-based pudding. As I contemplated making vegan pudding, I looked at dairy-based pudding recipes, and immediately discovered Paula Deen’s recipe. Eggs, milk and butter. Not surprising, and being relatively new to vegan cooking, it made me uncertain about creating a plant-based version.

I has happy to find quite a few vegan banana pudding recipes though. All used non-dairy milk, canned coconut milk, tofu, or some combination thereof. After studying how others have made it, I created the one below. Compared to Paula’s recipe, mine is presumably healthier. Unlike hers, mine is deliciously compassionate with lovely coconut undertones.

Vegan Southern-Style Banana Pudding Ingredients
Vegan Southern-Style Banana Pudding Ingredients

Southern-Style Banana Pudding

1 can coconut milk (full fat, not lite)
1 1/3 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk (I used almond)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 mashed banana (1/3-1/2 cup)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 ripe bananas, sliced
1 box vegan vanilla wafers (I used Back to Nature)
1 can non-dairy whipped cream

1. Whisk coconut milk, non-dairy milk, sugar, and cornstarch in a heavy saucepan until combined.
2. On medium heat, continuously whisk until mixture starts to bubble and become noticeably thicker, about 10 minutes. Turn heat down to low, continue whisking, and cook an additional minute.
3. Remove from heat. Add mashed banana, and whisk to combine. Add vanilla, and whisk to combine.
4. Line glass bowl or comparable dish(es) with layers of sliced banana, vanilla wafers and pudding.
5. Chill for at least 2 hours.
6. Serve with non-dairy whipped cream.

* My glass serving bowl broke recently, and I haven’t replaced it, so I used four individual glass ramekins, and a glass loaf pan. Depending on the volume of servings from the loaf pan, this recipe makes 8-10 servings.
** Don’t leave exposed banana slices as a top layer. If you desire, add fresh banana slices to top, prior to serving.