Archive for March, 2013

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Tiny Switches

March 15, 2013

In about a month’s time, it will be 4 years since I quit drinking. I don’t self-identify as an alcoholic, though it does run in my family, and some hardcore AA folk might label me a very high bottom alcoholic. I have written in the past about what lead me to quit, label or otherwise, but have recently learned new information that supports that decision. Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Epigenetics, but now it seems to be all I can think about.

There are plenty of resources out there to explain the new-ish science (I prefer THIS ONE because Hank is funny and cute but sadly married), but to put it in incredibly lay-woman terms, Epigenetics studies the genes above the genes. Your DNA is set for life, and immutable, but these are the chemicals that tell the unchangeable strands of your DNA whether or not to fire. Like little switches.

I, like many of us in the world, have a natural born tendency toward depression and anxiety. After about a year free of alcohol, I realized one day my depressive episodes seemed to have disappeared and my anxiety attacks slowed to just special occasion events (I’d like to see that Hallmark card: “Congrats on your tremors and bowel upset!”) I believe, in retrospect, that alcohol is an Epigenetic trigger for me: I am predisposed to depression, but removing this particular substance keeps the switch from firing.

There are two sides to the Epigenetic coin, though, one very optimistic and one very pessimistic. These are two lines that grabbed me from the above video:

“Your grandmother was making dietary decisions that effect you today.”

“You are making decisions that are going to effect people who are alive long after you’re dead.”

[Affect? Effect? Almost 32 and I still can’t get that right…]

On the one hand, lifestyle and dietary decisions of centuries and centuries worth of ancestors might be determining what may or may not fire in your genetic make up, for better or for much, much worse. As Hank says, “the damage has almost certainly already been done…” On the other, YOUR decisions, right now, if you happen to be a breeder, could determine what is expressed in future generations, for worse or for much, much better.

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but think Siddhartha was onto something when he was ruminating on the whole “everyone is interconnected” dealy. He may not have had the benefit of scholarly articles on Epigenetics, but he seems to have nailed it that our decisions not only impact our own lives going forward in time, but those of our future generations. Hell, even if I don’t have children, if I decide to start smoking a pack a day and blow it in enough people’s faces, I could be Epigenetically effecting their progeny’s on and off switches. (There is no risk of this. Smoking is gross.)

So, thanks, Grandpa, for the depression, the anxiety, and the debateable alcoholism. I’ll take the future and my little set of switches from here…

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With Regrets

March 5, 2013

On February 28th, 2013, Westboro Baptist Church (the classy owners of the URL, godhatesfags.com) descended on my alma mater, Vassar College, in protest of the school’s unabashed support of the LGBTQ community. And by descended on, I mean 4 of them showed up, and were met by hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of students, faculty, staff, alums and family members, gathered not in counter-protest, but in a campus-wide day of celebration of love and equality.

I wasn’t able to attend, but – because it’s the future – there was a live web-feed from a hand-cam a student was operating, which I turned on just in time to watch as these hundreds upon hundreds of community members were joining hands to form a gigantic circle around campus. The image was incredibly powerful. I know I’m not the only alum who turned on the feed and found themselves in tears; we could not be more proud of our school, for their spirit of inclusiveness and joy in the face of hatred (not to mention the $100,000+ the community raised for various LGBTQ organizations in honor of the day).

But pride wasn’t the only thing welling up and out of me. Because I’m a therapy-nerd, I wrote down on a sticky all the things I was feeling while watching the feed, and in addition to the emotions you might expect – pride, joy, nostalgia, love, a little spice of rage at WBC – I realized some of my tears were born of regret.

I grew up Catholic (the only little Rosenberg at CCD…), and consequently spent a fair amount of my childhood and adolescence pretty convinced “gays go to Hell.”  When I tell the story of my “recovery” from Catholicism I usually place the fulcrum around 15, when I met my first gay friend, Jason, and realized my beliefs fell apart in the face of a truly good, wonderful person, who happened to be gay.  But claiming a sudden epiphany and instant acceptance gives me way too much credit.

Watching this group of students and faculty join hands, I was reminded of something I said my first week of college that often comes back to haunt me. It was during orientation at the “Before School Conference” – the BSC, because we love to acronym – for which I had elected to attend a day of – ostensibly – theater camp. At the beginning of the day we gathered in one of the school’s performance spaces, and before events commenced, I observed a particularly flamboyant gentleman across the way from me, and made some comment to whomever I was with to the tune of:

“I’m totally fine with gay people, I just can’t stand when they wear it on their sleeve like that.”

Is it possible for my entire body to cringe? ‘Cause that just happened.

That was August 1999. Just 14 years ago. Now, spending the next 4 years at Vassar College did a lot of good to whip me into tolerance shape, at least as far as this particular population goes, but watching this video did force me to sit with the remorse and regret I felt for my former self – for my actions, but also for what pain must have lived inside the 18 year old me that felt the need to express that sort of diseased opinion.

My intolerance came from a lack of knowledge and education, and I am remorseful for my words while maintaining the awareness that it wasn’t “my fault” necessarily, and that I’ve righted my path since then. But regret, on the other hand, is something I’ve been sitting with a great deal lately. The more I pick apart childhood pain and its consequently reverberating habits in my adult self, the more regret I have. Put simply it’s the old, “If only I knew then what I know now…” deal.

It doesn’t feel like a terribly productive place to be, because there’s nothing I can do about it now, other than extend compassion to that messed up kid and try to learn from it all, but sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by time lost.  Time that could have been spent opening to people, making myself emotionally available. Time that now, in 2013, is spent climbing the mountain of my own emotional life, chipping away incessantly at diamond-strength resistance.

But at least now I can watch the magical live-feed of Vassar kids living in a world better designed for tolerance – at least in some places – than when I was in their shoes. We all got shit, and those students are dealing with whatever version of trauma and heartache they own just like me, but at least maybe they’ll have one less regret-mountain to climb.