Sep 13

DeRay McKesson: Living “In the Quiet” No More

Three separate quotes from On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (2018) by DeRay McKesson

Hope is the belief that our tomorrows can be better than our todays. Hope is not magic; hope is work.

In each generation there is a moment when young and old, inspired or disillusioned, come together around a shared hope, imagine the world as it can be, and have the opportunity to bring that world into existence. Our moment is now. 

If your love for me requires that I hide parts of who I am, then you don’t love me. Love is never a request for silence.

In addition to addressing his and others’ social activism in the 12 essays of On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, DeRay McKesson tells us important details of his own upbringing and influences.

Why write about the personal stuff? As explained to Michel Martin, NPR:

We have to start talking about all of who we are because all of who we are shows up in the work that we do…

I know that I’m a gay black man every time I come into a space, and what does that mean to be in movement spaces or other spaces where people are homophobic, but like me. I wanted to write about that. I didn’t know how to write a book about justice or about where we’ve been and where we go without also saying here’s who I am in those ways…

Among the first to champion the Black Lives Matter movement, DeRay McKesson’s difficult childhood included abandonment at a very early age by his drug addicted mother, sexual abuse by an older boy, bullying, living in a violent neighborhood, and coming out to himself as gay but feeling the need to keep it to himself.

An excerpt in The Advocate is loaded with meaningful statements about living “in the quiet”—his perspective on growing up oppressed—which DeRay McKesson feels differs from “the closet.” Selected quotes from this piece:    

But I did not know then the cost of the quiet. I did not know that the quiet is a thief, that it steals the potential for joy, for power, for freedom. And like most thieves, it works so that you don’t realize you’ve been robbed until what you once had is already gone. Or perhaps it steals away the possibility of things that you deserved, wanted, expected.

I think about the quiet instead of “the closet” because I’ve never hidden any part of myself from myself or from others, and the closet seems to imply some form of hiding. And when I think about being in the closet, I think of being there alone. But there are many people raised in the quiet, still in the quiet, stuck in the quiet, together. And they don’t always know that they’re not alone, even if it feels like they are. I was never hiding, as the image of the closet implies. But I grew up quieter about the parts of myself that I didn’t think anyone would love, the parts that I had never seen loved in others, the parts that might put me in danger if they were seen and heard as publicly as every other part of me. Quieter, that is; not silent.

When I think about the quiet, the image of a library comes to mind — the place where supposedly you can’t learn if there’s noise, a place of exploration that says don’t speak. But there are always people whispering and passing notes in the library, always people finding ways to have a voice despite the rules, always people coming out of the quiet.

Apr 18

Toxic Stress: Effects on Our Health and Mental Health

TOXIC STRESS: The biological response to severe and/or repeated adversity absent the buffering support from a caring and trusted adult.

Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, like science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa before her (Childhood Disrupted), has written a book about how ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) affect our development. The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity (2018) covers the gamut of possible physical, emotional, and behavioral responses.

Some ACEs statistics courtesy of interviews with Harris:

Two-thirds of Americans have been exposed to one significant adverse childhood experience, and between 13 and 17 percent have been exposed to four or more. We know that being exposed to high doses of childhood adversity dramatically increases the risk for seven of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States. (New York Times)

An individual with four or more ACEs is 10 times more likely to be an IV drug user as someone with no ACEs. (New York Times)

…For depression, it was 4.5 times. For suicidality, it was 12 times. (NPR)

As explained in her NPR interview, how you might envision the physiological effects of toxic stress:

Well, imagine you’re walking in the forest, and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, release stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol. And so your heart starts to pound. Your pupils dilate. Your airways open up. And you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest, and there’s a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night. And this system is activated over and over and over again.

What can help to offset ACEs? New York Times interview excerpt:

One of the key ingredients for keeping the body’s stress response out of the toxic stress zone is the presence of a healthy buffering caregiver. So we need to educate parents and caregivers about the impact a child’s environment and exposures may be having on their health. We also know that if a caregiver is able to self-regulate, their kids have much better outcomes. Good old-fashioned mental health care really does help. In research studies, certain types of interventions, including child-parent psychotherapy, can help to normalize cortisol levels and get the body’s stress response back on track.

But now here you are as an adult: you’ve gotten your own ACE quiz score, and you want to know what you can do. Some suggestions: regular physical exercise, a healthy dose of sleep, and meditation.

Selected Reviews of The Deepest Well

Kirkus Reviews: “In this powerful debut, the author describes the medical research and recalls her own frontline experiences as a pioneer in the treatment of toxic stress as CEO of San Francisco’s Center for Youth Wellness, which offers multidisciplinary care for children suffering from trauma. ‘The body remembers,’ she writes. ‘Twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades’.”

Ashley Judd, actor/author: “…My Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) test result is a nine out of ten. When I needed it, one person extended the hand of hope and help to me. It saved me. This book has the power to extend that hand to countless others.”

J.D. Vance, author: “a heartbreaking, beautiful book about what might be the most important single issue facing our country’s disadvantaged populations: the prevalence of childhood trauma…(A) gripping book that should convince everyone that we have a serious problem, and that unless we address it the losers will be our nation’s children.”

Harris’s 2014 TED talk:

Jan 30

“Bossypants” By Tina Fey, Comic Chronicler of Everyday Problems

Tina Fey‘s bestselling book Bossypants (2011) was released this month in paperback. As described in one review: “Bossypants gets to the heart of why Tina Fey remains universally adored: she embodies the hectic, too-many-things-to-juggle lifestyle we all have, but instead of complaining about it, she can just laugh it off” (Kevin Nguyen,

Or, as Fey herself writes: “Because I am nothing if not an amazing businesswoman, I researched what kind of content makes for bestselling books. It turns out the answer is ‘one-night stands,’ drug addictions, and recipes. Here, we are out of luck. But I can offer you lurid tales of anxiety and cowardice.”

She says a number of things that I find quite relevant to self-growth and/or mental health issues. For example, on dealing with the childhood trauma of having her face slashed and permanently scarred by a stranger: “I accepted all the attention at face value and proceeded through life as if I really were extraordinary. I guess what I’m saying is, this has all been a wonderful misunderstanding.”

Other quotes from Bossypants on topics of interest:

“My ability to turn good news into anxiety is rivaled only by my ability to turn anxiety into chin acne.”

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”

“There are no mistakes, only opportunities.”

“I keep my eyes on the sea, waiting to be rocketed into it on a wave of fire. I’ll be ready for it to happen and that way it won’t happen. It’s a burden, being able to control situations with my hyper-vigilance, but it’s my lot in life.”

In 2010, Fey became only the third woman to ever win the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, arguably the biggest award a comedian in the U.S. can receive. The award, which has been given annually since 1998, was given to Whoopi Goldberg in 2001 and Lily Tomlin in 2003.

When she gave her acceptance speech at the Mark Twain event, she directed the following remarks to her parents in the audience: “They say that funny people often come from a difficult childhood or a troubled family. So to my family, I say, ‘They’re giving me the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor! What did you animals do to me???”

Here’s a watch-worthy clip from her speech: