Wednesday, August 18, 2021

My Introduction as a Guest Blogger for Blanket Fort Hope

My story began over 50 years ago in Birmingham, AL. An early value that was instilled in me was the importance of church. My first outing after being born was going to church and being enrolled in the “Cradle Roll” at two weeks old. I grew up in a family that was at church just about every time the doors were open.

Though I was raised in an intact, lower-middle-class, Christian family, I had a lot going on. I had several medical conditions that were difficult to diagnose and I had to do a lot of things differently or apart from peers. I was considered gifted academically, which is a blessing, but that also made me different. Then as a teenager, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression which made it hard to navigate life during those transitioning-to-adulthood years.

I did experience success in my young adult years, graduating top of my class for both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But I also experienced a lot of failure – or at least times of major frustration and waiting.

I wanted children badly – a huge desire since I was about 8 years old – but couldn’t get pregnant. After I finally did get pregnant and had a healthy baby girl, my husband left us, eventually getting divorced. I had job challenges, some of them life changing. I was a single mom with very little financial support from my ex-husband. These issues are just the tip of the iceberg.

And my mental and physical health issues didn’t help.

However, one positive outcome from these difficulties has been developing empathy. I recognize that there is no way I can fully comprehend what another has been through and how those experiences have affected them, but I have experienced plenty of pain, heartache, and having things done to me that I didn’t deserve.

I understand what it means to not be understood. I understand what it means to have something or someone you love taken away from you. I understand what it means to be falsely accused. And though I’m a Christian and know in my heart that God is on my side, I understand feeling very alone, without hope, without a future - as there have been many periods of my life where I’ve felt just that way.

Fast-forward to a few years ago. The same God who I knew was on my side proved Himself in an incredible way. After losing a lot of parts of my life dear to me in the state where I lived for 25 years, I moved back home. I had to start over, and I wasn’t sure how and even if I would be able to make it.

You see, one of my dreams has always been to make a career out of photography, a passion of mine since I was a teenager. Another big dream I’ve had is to be a writer. Still another is to learn American Sign Language (ASL). And one more is to be an advocate for others with mental and physical health issues.

However, after that time of loss, I gained something – having the dreams I mentioned earlier happen.

I now do freelance work in photography and writing. I have had almost 150 paid photography sessions and have had published over 100 articles, not counting those in my two blogs, during the past few years. I am in the process of learning ASL and even though it’s slow going, I’m starting to become fluent and hope to be a licensed interpreter one day.

I created a blog called “Spotlight on Stigma” and have had many articles published in an online magazine called “The Mighty” – both of which address the advocacy part of what I hope to do. (You can go to www.NovelPhotos.com to learn more about my work in everything but ASL.)

I found out about Blanket Fort Hope (BFH) through an article I was writing for TAB Media (The Alabama Baptist newspaper and The Baptist Paper). Both Alexa and Justin are so passionate about this cause, it encouraged me to consider volunteering. I offered to BFH both the gifts God gave me for photography and writing and the empathy He provided through my struggles to further this effort.

My desire in being a part is to help spread awareness of what’s happening with trafficking as well as bring up some points that some might not think about concerning others’ problems and pain.

Possibly something I write or a photo I take will cause someone to pause and think about the article/image. Maybe those thoughts from that someone will also lead to supporting those who have never had that kind of care - the survivors of sex trafficking.

And hopefully, if we all work together, living the hope of Christ and showing it to these children and young adults will help these survivors heal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

"You Can Do Anything if You Try Hard Enough" is a LIE

With the Olympics just finishing, I hear it even more than usual: "You can do anything if you try hard enough." This is simply not true and it's one of my biggest pet peeves.

I was interviewing a mom whose daughter has a very rare condition with multiple physical and mental impairments and she mentioned this too. She realizes that her daughter can make great strides and do great things but can't "be anything she wants." I love her attitude, but it's just not possible.

When I was young, I first thought about this, ironically, concerning fair employment practices and acting. I knew that an employer was supposed to consider each candidate equally for a position. But how did that work if the part was obviously for a child and the one who wanted it was a senior citizen? In the times we live in, it would be possible to do make-up or CGI to make that elderly person into one much younger, but in most cases, it would be cost-prohibitive... and frankly, unnecessary. 

My daughter is a good example of someone who has a great aptitude to do work that physically she can't do. Yes, I'm biased, but she has incredible potential to be a great cinematographer. She has an eye for unusual angles and knows the psychology of how a certain type of shot makes you feel. 

But she has a condition that makes her extremely sensitive to extremes in temperature, especially heat. You know the phrase, "The mind is willing but the body is weak?" She epitomizes that phrase. She would love to work in film but knows her limits. Working 12 hour days on film sets that range from very hot to very cold is not something she can do. 

Though I believe those with Down Syndrome can do so much more than many give them credit for, it's extremely unlikely that someone with Down Syndrome will ever become a top physicist. Even if it's just the way their education was handled due to our low expectations and not their true capacity, it's just not going to happen.

I'm extremely overweight and have been at least somewhat overweight the majority of my life. Plus, I have Joint Hypermobility Syndrome. I never could have been a top gymnast. Between my loose joints and my weight, I wouldn't have been able to pull off even the most basic skills, much less top-level ones.

Other quick examples of people not being able to do what they really want to do, even if they tried REALLY hard:

- a person who has major visual difficulties wanting to become a pilot;

- a person who is very hearing impaired wanting to be a sound engineer;

- a person with type 1 diabetes becoming a dessert critic;

- a paraplegic becoming an Olympic athlete (not the Paralympic Games, the regular one);

- a person with severe heart disease becoming a Triathalon champion;

- a person with scoliosis becoming a weight lifter;

- a depressed comic (wait... I know of several - never mind on this one).

I could go on and on with other examples but that's not the point of this post. 

The point is that we need to stop portraying the message that trying hard will lead to success (as society defines it). Instead, we need to focus on helping each person become the best he/she can be, even if that's not "the best." We also need to encourage those who have a dream to think outside of the box. Maybe the original dream isn't possible, but there may be something similar that is possible that would be just as fulfilling.

Indulge me by letting me share one more personal example. I am 53 and have multiple physical and mental conditions that affect my day-to-day life. I'm also a freelance photographer and writer and would love to be the best in my area at what I do. However, I recognize I have limitations and can't "do anything." 

I can't do 12-hour shoots due to no longer having enough stamina. I can't do outdoor shoots in the summer unless they are short and I can have access to something very cold to drink throughout. I can't climb a lot of stairs or jump onto the bumper of a truck (which I did years ago) to get the best angle for a shot. Some days my depression or brain fog is so bad that I can't think well enough to sit at a desk and write. Other days my anxiety is so high I have a hard time editing the photos I took because I keep second-guessing myself.

I would absolutely love to be a photographer who works for one professional sports team,  music group, or performer. But that involves a lot of travel (not good with my mental issues), a lot of unknowns (not good for my anxiety), a lot of physical work (not good with my stamina). No matter how much I want this kind of job and "try hard" to get it, it's not going to happen.

But some examples of I CAN...

- work towards getting the best angles and shots within a smaller space so I'm not wearing myself out before a photography session is over;

- schedule summer shoots in the morning or evening, try to put off the shoot until cooler weather, or refer them to another photographer;

- write a lot when I'm mentally able so that when I'm not, I'm not behind; 

- unless there's a tight deadline that's not in my control, give my clients a later image delivery date than I would like so that I can wait to edit if I'm not able to do my best on a certain day; 

- set my schedule so that I can take breaks if needed (again, unless there's a tight deadline); 

- ask for help and accommodations if needed - such as a cold drink on a hot day or an extended deadline for a client who usually has a tight deadline;

- shoot as many professional sports, concerts, and performers as possible who are in my area so that I can take a day or two to recover if needed.

Sometimes I feel guilty because I can't do everything I'd like to do as a photographer and writer. I would love to be able to run around and get the best photos possible. I would love to be able to sit down and write any time for as long as I want and know that I won't have to re-do it later because it made no sense. 

If you look at my photography and writing you can see that even with these limitations, I do a pretty good job. Is it the best it could possibly be? No. Do I try hard? H*ll, yeah. There's always something I wish I could do better. I'm not making excuses but my physical and mental limitations are a big part of why I can't. 

However, there's so much that "I can."

The message we need to relay is encouragement while being realistic. Though it doesn't fly off the tongue as well, what about this: 

"Find a dream that is within or just beyond your skill set, personality, mental and physical abilities, and work hard to achieve that goal. Know that it's okay if you fall short or need to come up with a different dream but don't give up on yourself. Even if you don't fulfill your dream, your life can be wonderful and meaningful and will be if you don't give up, not on your dream, but on you."

Thursday, August 5, 2021

My Hero - Simone Biles

It's something that very few would do... walk away from something they've prepared their entire life for, something that could easily disappoint an entire nation, something that many wouldn't or couldn't understand.

But Simone Biles did it at this year's Olympic Games. 

According to an article on ESPN.com, Biles said, "Once I came out here [to compete], I was like, 'No, mental is not there, so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself."

I applaud her courage. I have a hard time letting my mental health issues get in the way of tasks that could disappoint just one person, much less potentially an entire world of fans. 

Biles hasn't always had it easy or been a star. When she was young, she had a horrible home life until she was adopted by her maternal grandfather and his wife. She was bullied in high school due to her muscular build and was given grief by the public when it was discovered that she has ADHD. She admitted being one of the 100+ girls abused by Larry Nassar.

"Most of you know me as a happy, giggly and energetic girl. But lately... I've felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head the louder it screams, Biles wrote on her social media (according to the New York Post article).

Those of us who deal with mental health issues can fully understand. Many of us have wanted to withdraw from something because it was hard on us due to our mental health issues, but we were afraid of the repercussions of doing so. We are taught to please others no matter the toll it takes on us. But while many applauded Biles' taking care of herself above the expectations of others, there is another important aspect of this news.

"USA Gymnastics released a statement July 27 declaring the Biles' withdrawal following her vault rotation was due to an unspecified 'medical issue' and she would 'be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions,'" said the New York Post.

This kind of statement just amplifies the stigma that a medical issue is a valid reason to withdraw, but not that a mental health one is. Most of the time when an athlete has to leave a competition due to a medical issue, that issue is labeled. For example, a basketball player that can't play due to a broken ankle would be listed as such, not as an "unspecified medical issue."

It's possible that Biles or her coach didn't want to specify the reason at the time the statement was released. It's also possible the USA Gymnastics didn't know the actual reason.

But it's much more likely that USA Gymnastics was trying to cover up that it was "only" a mental health issue that caused one of the greatest gymnasts of all time to quit right before a major competition.

And that's wrong.

A symptom like "brain fog" (yes, that's a real thing) can affect performance as much or more than a broken wrist for an office worker. However, it's perfectly acceptable for someone to take sick leave for a broken wrist and not be allowed to do so for the auto-immune flare-up that caused brain fog.

An anxiety attack can interfere with a job interview as much as the flu, but if you try to reschedule a job interview due to having an anxiety attack, it's very likely you won't get the job.

Mental health symptoms can be just as debilitating as physical... but so many times we can't admit it when mental health is the real issue.

We have got to continue efforts to normalize that it's okay to withdraw from something because of mental health impairments. We need to recognize that untreated mental health issues can be as deadly as physical health issues, sometimes more so.

We must continue to spotlight the stigmas that affect our daily lives and bring them to light.

Referenced articles:
- https://www.espn.com/olympics/gymnastics/story/_/id/31902290/simone-biles-withdraws-individual-all-competition-tokyo-olympics-focus-mental-health
- https://nypost.com/article/history-of-simone-biles-mental-health-issues/