The terrors of advocacy

Today I did something I’ve never done before: I spoke with an elected official to advocate about something I care about.

I experienced near-panic as the appointed time for the call approached. I sat with my notes, reviewing the budget item I wanted to talk about, going over my talking points, re-reading the material I had emailed ahead of time to my state senator. I fussed about the kitchen, remembering to get myself a glass of water in case I developed paralyzing dry-mouth during the call.

10:30 arrived and the call came in. I answered with trepidation, though I hope my voice didn’t shake too much.

It was the senator’s aide, calling to let me know the call would be delayed by 10 minutes.

Great. Ten more minutes to wallow in my terror. I sat still in my chair for a moment, filled not only with fear, but also with gratitude that the senator had been forced to turn my in-person meeting into a telephone call, because now as we talked, I could shake my legs wildly to vent my anxiety without her noticing. 

* * * * *

I was a piano geek from when I was really little, and a performance major in college. I spent my early years doing piano things — recitals, concerts with the local youth orchestra, accompanying gigs, money-making gigs where I played background music for events, early church services on Sundays, master classes, pretty intense competitions. Eventually I guess I habituated to a lot of the performance anxiety I experienced, though for big solo events I still had panic attacks accompanied by bouts of diarrhea.

Then I was a litigator for twelve years. I participated in mediations and arbitrations and jury trials and evidentiary hearings, took and defended depositions, made arguments to judges, met with mean partners and confused witnesses and scary opposing counsel, and did all sorts of other stuff that made me pretty darn anxious. I guess eventually I habituated to a lot of those terrors as well.

I’ve spent the last seven years advocating in various ways for Jesse in the school system and in extracurriculars and in the medical system. I meet with people, talk with people, share information with people, write emails and letters to people, argue with people, beg people for what Jesse needs. It all makes me anxious, but I’ve gotten used to the players and mostly we’ve developed collaborative relationships and it’s not so bad anymore.

You would think talking with my state senator on the phone for ten minutes would be no big deal.

But I feel a lot of generalized social anxiety just thinking about meeting with or calling any legislative peeps. I can’t explain it. It just is. Still, as the moment of this call approached, I was shocked to find that my mood was approaching full-on panic. It was BAD. My stomach churned. My heart rate was badly elevated. My skin crawled. My armpits started to smell. I was having trouble breathing. I paced around the house shaking out my arms and legs, and cracking my neck again and again.

* * * * *

So finally the actual  call came from my senator. I managed to pick up the phone without dropping it. I prepared myself for a call that would undoubtedly leave me feeling inadequate, thick-tongued, and foolish.

My state senator’s name is Alberta Darling. She’s the chair of the joint finance committee here in Wisconsin, which makes her very powerful indeed, and that makes me a lucky constituent.

I had already informed her scheduling aide what I wanted to talk about, which is a line item in Governor Scott Walker’s budget that proposes about $6 million to support school initiatives relating to mental health — basically training for screening, intervention and referral; and grant funding to help schools form collaborative relationships with local mental health providers so students can obtain services more easily. It’s not much, and it’s not enough, but it’s a start.

A couple days ago I had emailed the aide an article on mental health issues in children that ran last year in the  Milwaukee Magazine, in which Jesse was highlighted. I sent links to a couple blog posts of mine that touched on school issues Jesse has contended with. I just figured, why not do what professional advocates say we’re supposed to do, tell an authentic story that explains why something matters?

Senator Darling started right in on our call with, “I just want to tell you up front…”

I cringed in real time with the words, and I prepared to do battle.

But she didn’t go there. Instead, she told me she fully supports the proposal. She got Walker to increase the budget amount assigned to it. She gets it. She supports more funding for mental health services for children in schools. It’s a terrible problem. We need to help. I want to tell you that up front, she said, so you don’t think you need to convince me.


Thank you, I said.

Then I waited for her to find an excuse to hang up quickly on me, since she didn’t need me to convince her.

But she didn’t go there. She just sort of… outwaited me. And listened. I told her how happy it would make Jesse to know that our senator understands how important mental health issues are for children. I went on for too long about how Jesse’s “mental illnesses” — Tourette’s and OCD — are poor passports to services, whereas closely related disabilities like ADHD and autism are good passports to services, and that’s not fair. I talked about how unfair it is that children with mental illnesses don’t have well-trained staff in schools to help identify issues and develop toolkits to support their needs, and that these kids are too often chalked off as disciplinary problems.

She listened. She asked questions. She clarified. She seemed to be taking notes.

She thanked me for my advocacy.


She invited me to come testify at a joint finance committee hearing about my support for this budget item. Those hearings are zoos, all-day affairs with massive numbers of people lined up to have their short turn to be heard. I told her Jesse might like to testify, since  this is really her story. Senator Darling sounded delighted, and she suggested I let her aide know if we were coming so that she could anticipate us and invite us up earlier in the day to testify, instead of making Jesse wait around interminably.


We wound up the call and said cordial good byes, and I sat back, relieved to find that I was still alive and still all of one piece, and also I hadn’t peed my pants.

* * * * *

So here’s the weird punch line: I, a lifelong Democrat, am planning to go testify at an open hearing in support of a hard-core Republican governor’s budget proposal to put $6 million new dollars into mental health initiatives in public and charter schools. My senator, also a hard-core Republican, supports the measure as well. And if it makes it through, I’m going to thank them.


It occurs to me that one of the reasons I fear political advocacy is that it creates an internal dissonance in this overwhelmingly polarized, hyper-partisan age. We are either Democrats or Republicans, and any third or fourth option is meaningless. We’re like two feral packs of dogs, one on each side of a bottomless ravine, slavering and snarling at one another across an unconquerable divide.

But life isn’t so simple, and the broad range of issues we face — not only at the national level but also in our local communities — are too complicated to fit into a binary bracket. This is a time and place in American history where everyone not only deserves to be heard, but needs to be heard. There has to be value in speaking, and speaking, and speaking, as respectfully and persistently as we can, to the values and policies that matter to us as humans, not as Ds or Rs or Is. 

So I think I will accept the internal dissonance, because maybe it’s a fiction, and I’ll keep on calling and meeting with elected people, even if we disagree on a lot of issues. There are more nonpartisan issues in this world than we know, I’m thinking — we are, after all, human beings first, not political affiliations first. And as weird and awful as other people’s political positions may seem to me, I know it’s time for me to start looking for some basic shared values that underlie our different points of view. Because I know they’re there, those shared values. They have to be, or else we’re doomed. 

And here’s the thing. For me, political activism is about making the world better, for the future, for humanity, and for my children. I would throw myself in front of a freight train for my kids. I would exchange my life for theirs without a second thought. I would chew my own arm off if it meant a better life for my children. I would give up anything for them. 

I can also talk to my legislative representatives for them, despite my fears and social anxiety. It’s probably a better option than dying or chewing off limbs.