The Danger of a Single Story for West Virginia

This post has been a long time in the making. Like 10+ years. It’s been rattling around in my brain and influencing every step along my path. Sometimes it’s a deep sense quietly pointing the way and sometimes it’s frustration boiling up from just under the surface. In the past week, with the recent passage of some disheartening bills in the WV House of Delegates, it’s been more of the latter, and at the risk of getting “political,” it’s time for these thoughts to have a voice. Because for WV and her citizens (past, present, and future), it’s so much bigger than politics.

There is an unfortunate stereotype that haunts West Virginians. We’re supposed to be toothless, barefoot, dirty, poor, ignorant, racist, inbreeding hillbillies. That’s quite an image to overcome. I’m reminded of this stereotype every time I tell someone I’m from WV (once we’ve gotten past the fact that yes I do mean the state of West Virginia – which has been separate from the state of Virginia for a few years now) and am met with a puzzled look and something along the lines of, “But you don’t look/talk/act like you’re from West Virginia.” To which I typically reply, “Tell me what you mean by that” (I am a psychologist, after all) and then politely educate the person about the variety of sub-cultures that exists within the state. West Virginians are used to this. It’s almost like a rite of passage. I suppose I could let the comments and the jokes slide by, but after so many years of hearing them, that just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do anymore because to brush them off would be to silently accept and cement this dangerous stereotype.

A few years ago, someone sent me a link to a brilliant TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story.” It was in relation to an HIV project I was working with at the time, but her thoughts resonated with me at a much more personal level. As a person from WV, I live with the single story of West Virginia and so every day, I push back against that story. Others are, too, – Jason Headley in his beautifully written essays (State of Confusion and Dear West Virginia) that bring a tear to my eye each time I read them and Tijah Bumgarner with her documentary. Then there’s the recent scientific discoveries made by WVU professors – from uncovering the Volkswagen scandal to the confirmation of Einstein’s theory about gravitational waves. Collectively, these challenge the single story of the WV hillbilly.


Unfortunately, the WV House of Delegates has done as much to unravel this progress in the past few weeks as the years of work it took to make it. With the passage of bills that allow individuals to carry concealed weapons without a permit, require people receiving welfare to pass drug tests, and permit outright discrimination on the basis of “religious freedom,” these lawmakers have confirmed the WV stereotype in one fell swoop. I’m not going to touch the concealed carry issue. (Despite what many politicians say, I think this is a more nuanced issue with no easy answer and which requires more thoughtful discussion.) The welfare issue is slightly more bothersome, not least of all because of the failed track record in several other states that have piloted welfare drug testing programs. Is it really prudent for a state with the limited economic resources of WV to be spending money on a program with few apparent benefits? Not to mention that the substance use treatment programs to which offenders are supposed to be referred are in short supply. In a state grappling with substance use and mental health problems (particularly the epidemic of opiate addiction), why waste precious resources trying to catch a few people when that focus could be on improving access to treatment? The most disheartening was the proposal, let alone passage, of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Again, recent history is not on the side of this type of bill, as seen in Indiana. Appealing to a business sensibility, a report on the economic impact of tourism in WV over the past 10 years shows how little the state can afford to lose in tourism dollars were companies and individuals to boycott WV business as they did in Indiana. On a humanistic level, this bill does not represent the spirit of acceptance and equality that I and many people I know were raised to follow.

West Virginians do not cast each other aside. West Virginians bond together and look out for one another, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s part of the shared experience of living with the single story of WV, of being the outcasts and the underdogs, that makes us closer. This bill does not uphold the WV value that “Mountaineers are always free.” This bill affirms the stupid, single story of WV. Several delegates spoke out against the bill and some municipalities throughout the state already have passed ordinances in opposition of it. I hope that the WV Senate does the right thing and votes it down.

I’m still a proud Mountaineer. I’m grateful for having the chance to grow up in WV, to weave together my stories. I hope that others will get to experience all that WV has to offer, and I hope that West Virginians will allow everyone to explore all of her beautiful stories. I urge West Virginians everywhere to work to make our home state better, not drive it backward. Show the welcoming spirit for which we have become known.


Artwork by Jessica Kennedy

On Mindfulness

I recently participated in the Mindfulness Summit, a 31-day online event hosted by Each day in October, a new interview and/or meditation was posted and featured  some of the most important minds in mindfulness, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Russ Harris, Tara Brach, and Rick Hanson. Needless to say, I did a lot of nerding out at the chance to learn more about mindfulness from these experts. The grand finale was a live, online guided meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn and thousands of other people from all over the world. There was something very powerful about being part of that collective experience.


Throughout the month of the summit, I was struck by how personalized mindfulness is for each person. Though the most commonly used or accepted description of mindfulness, as put forth by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” how that happens and the effects of it vary from person to person. Some people place more emphasis on formal practices while others note that informal practice also can be very effective. Some people describe a sudden awakening or “a-ha moment” as a result of their practice whereas others experience a more gradual change. For myself, when I first learned of mindfulness and began a practice, there was a marked change in how I approached stressful situations (and life in general) because I suddenly had a new and different perspective or skill. Over the years I plateaued, until last month when I noticed a subtle change in how I noticed things, like a scene slowly coming into focus or the sun beginning to rise and break through the clouds, slowly noticing more, feeling simultaneously calm and more alert, having more gratitude for the small things.


I think the flexibility of how one can approach mindfulness broadens its appeal. It also poses several problems. First, some have expressed concern that the essence of mindfulness can be diluted without a formal practice and trained teachers. Second, something that is of particular interest to clinicians and researchers attempting to better understand the mechanisms of mindfulness, an unstandardized practice is difficult to quantify and study. The American Psychologist recently published a special issue on challenges to the basic and clinical science of mindfulness in which Richard Davidson, a leading figure in mindfulness neuroscience research, and Alfred Kaszniak outline the particular issues with mindfulness research, from agreeing on a single definition of mindfulness to determining exactly what we should be measuring when we study it.


Also in the American Psychologist special issue is a reflection on a point with which I have struggled- namely that mindfulness was not intended to be a therapeutic technique. Anne Harrington and  John Dunne provide a historical perspective on how the medical and psychological communities (as well as popular culture) became enamored of mindfulness. I incorporate mindfulness-based practices into my clinical and educational work and feel a twinge of conflict each time I introduce it to someone, attempting to explain why practicing can be beneficial without promising it as a panacea.  I have found an interview with Jack Kornfield in Spirituality & Health to help ease my mind. In it, he notes the rising popularity of yoga and mindfulness practices and embraces them, noting that what may begin as something trendy can be transformative for some individuals. Quite the mindful way to view it!


I can say that mindfulness, when I make a conscious effort to practice, has made a noticeable difference in my life, and I have seen it make a difference in the lives of others, as well. I also have seen it do nothing, particularly when people are not able to commit to a practice, whether formal or informal. My own participation in the Mindfulness Summit was variable, and I was able to accept that and re-commit to a practice when I needed to. I have been using informal practices more regularly since the summit and plan to continue with them, adding formal practices when I am able to commit the time and attention. Flexible or flaky? Either way, it is working for me in the moment, and I can change course at any time.

Kitchen Adventures: Fall Treats

I’ve been focusing a lot recently on wellness at work and my own mindfulness practice. I’ll post something about both of those soon. As part of this focus, I’ve actively been trying to do more things that matter to me or that I just enjoy. One of the things that brings me the most joy is food – whether making it, eating it, thinking or talking about it. So I spent some time today in the kitchen trying out/creating some new recipes: Squash and Chickpea Moroccan Stew (from Smitten Kitchen) and Pumpkin Gingerbread Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Icing (from my kitchen). The stew took a little time (mostly in prep time to chop all the veggies – totally worth it, this stuff is GOOD); the cake was easy (as pie? Much easier than pie, actually.).

For the cake: I used a boxed gingerbread cake mix and made according to directions on the box, adding a cup of pumpkin puree to the batter. For the cinnamon cream cheese icing, I combined an 8 oz package of cream cheese (softened), 1/4 c butter, 1  1/2  t. vanilla extract, 1 tbsp. milk, ground cinnamon to taste (I’d guess about 2 teaspoons), and confectioner’s sugar until it got to my preferred taste/consistency (again guessing about 2 1/2 c.). The icing was almost the consistency of a cinnamon roll icing, which I thought was fine for the gingerbread cake, as I find it to be more crumbly than moist. You can use more butter and confectioner’s sugar and omit the milk to make a thicker frosting (like this one) – I just don’t like frosting that is too sweet.

Perfect treats for this lovely autumn day!



Kitchen Adventures: Fresh Flavors

I love cooking in the summer. Well, anytime really, but especially summer. Everything is fresh, and the grill is always ready to go. This weekend, I took advantage of both for a couple easy bites.


Grilled Shrimp


Quick marinade (just peel and devein the shrimp first), grill for a couple minutes until pink – it doesn’t get any easier than that. And SO GOOD. For the marinade, I used:

Couple tablespoons melted butter

Few dashes of Worchestershire sauce

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Garlic salt

Onion powder

Smoked paprika

Chili powder

Old Bay seasoning


These could be great for a BBQ appetizer or as a meal with grilled veggies.

Cherry Tomato Pico de Gallo


Another recipe that’s not really even a recipe, it’s so easy. Just chop the ingredients and gently mix together. You’ll need cherry tomatoes, onion, minced garlic, 1 jalapeño pepper (seeds removed), juice of 1 lime, cilantro, and a dash of salt. Provecho!

Kitchen Adventures: S’Mores Brownies

Today is a two-fer with a dinner and dessert post! These brownies took two tries to perfect, and I was more than happy to taste test them both times to make sure I got them right. That’s dedication.

A couple things I learned by trial-and-error. First, bake the graham cracker crust for about 10 minutes before pouring the brownie batter on top. This will save you from a gooey, crumbly (though still delicious) mess when trying to cut and serve the brownies later. Second, some recipes I found suggested using sugar in the graham cracker crust. Don’t do it. You don’t need it. These brownies are decadent as is, and the sweet and slightly salty combo is a winner. I also suggest using a dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate brownie mix or making your own brownie batter to control the sugar.


  • 2 c crushed graham crackers
  • 1 stick (8 tbsp) melted butter
  • 1 box brownie mix or your own brownie recipe of choice
  • Marshmallows

Press graham cracker crumbs and melted butter into bottom of greased brownie pan. Bake for 10 min at 350F. Pour brownie batter on top and bake according to package directions/recipe. Cover with marshmallows and broil for a couple minutes, until the marshmallows are toasted.


Forgive me for not getting a better picture. Once we cut into these, I was so excited to bite into the gooey goodness before me that I forgot to take a photo showing all the delicious layers. I think you’ll understand when you taste these brownies.

Kitchen Adventures: Summer Comfort Food

Sometimes a simple meal just comes together so deliciously. Nothing fancy but still flavorful. Tonight that magic happened in my kitchen. I went back to basics, with a little twist: grilled lemon pepper chicken wrapped in prosciutto, gouda mac & cheese, and marinated tomatoes. My favorite part of the meal was the fact that the basil and cherry tomatoes I used were grown in my own little patio garden! Simple instructions are below (I won’t use the word recipe because I don’t really measure when I cook but, like my grandmother did, estimate amounts by sight and taste).


  • Marinate in olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic salt and lemon pepper for about 30 minutes
  • At the end of grilling, place a large basil leaf on top and wrap in prosciutto, then grill for 1 minute longer (adding a piece of cheese would take this over-the-top delicious, but I restrained myself since there was plenty of cheese in the mac)

Gouda mac and cheese:

  • While the pasta is boiling in salted water, make a roux with roughly equal parts butter and flour. Add milk or half-and-half (for the quantity I made, I used about 1 – 1 1/2 c skim milk). Stir in shredded cheese, both smoked gouda and cheddar, about 8-10 oz total. Season cheese sauce with ground mustard, onion powder, and salt.
  • Pour sauce and cooked, drained macaroni into greased baking dish. Stir in a little extra shredded cheese and top with some more shredded cheese and cracked black pepper.
  • Bake at 350F for about 20 minutes, until cheese is bubbly.

Marinated tomato salad:

  • Gently toss cherry tomatoes,  basil, and thinly sliced sweet onion in olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Cover and let sit for about an hour before serving.

That’s it. So easy, so tasty.



Today I’m toasting the official first day of summer (and my dad) by relaxing with a refreshing drink, enjoying nature-watching in my backyard. My dad is an outdoors lover and expert gardener, something I’m trying to cultivate in myself by starting with some container gardening on my deck. So it was only right that I use some of the home-grown mint I have to make a mojito, my favorite summer drink. But not just any mojito – a ginger peach mojito. I remember my dad making homemade peach ice cream with fresh peaches from the local orchard when I was a kid – it was creamy, fresh, and so delicious. So when I came across a recipe for ginger beer mojitos, I knew I had to add some muddled fresh peaches to properly celebrate today. A toast to summer and Fathers’ Day!


From Gimme Some Oven

Reblog: Finding a psychotherapist

Psychotherapy is hard (and meaningful) work. Perhaps it is this realization or the fear of what might be dug up through that process that keeps so many people from seeking out the therapy that might be so beneficial for them. I often find myself perplexed, frustrated, and questioning when people “drop out” of therapy early or do not attend the appointments to which they have been referred and scheduled. National studies have provided many reasons why people do not engage in therapy. Beyond that, research also shows us that one of the most important factors in maintaining therapy and seeing therapeutic success is the client-therapist relationship. Every therapist is likely to have his or her own style, personality, and approach to treatment, which will not necessarily work for every person seeking therapy in the same way. Sometimes it may be helpful or necessary to see a few therapists before finding the “right” one. For this reason, the Moments of Meaning project lists on their blog tips for finding a psychotherapist. Among top considerations, they note ethical practice, training, and the ever-important fit. It can be helpful for both therapist and client to treat the first visit as a consultation, each exploring the concerns to be addressed and expectations for treatment, as well as their interpersonal fit. Approaching therapy in this collaborative way and with an open and curious mind sets the tone for the important work to come.

Mental Health Month

May is Mental Health Month, and Mental Health America is focusing their campaign this year, B4Stage4, on encouraging screening and early intervention. They propose that with earlier identification and intervention, mental illness can be treated more effectively, preventing its progression and ultimately lowering disease burden and health care costs. Though the USPSTF recommends routine depression screening only in the cases where mental health supports and follow-up are readily available (by having psychologists or other mental health providers integrated into primary care clinics, for example) and doesn’t make a recommendation for routine screening for suicidal thoughts, the MHA campaign promotes a new way of thinking about prevention and treatment of mental illness that is more aligned with how we think about prevention and treatment of physical illnesses such as cancer (though this dichotomy assumes that mental and physical illness are two separate things, when many times they are closely intertwined). With 50 percent of Americans meeting criteria for some mental illness during their lifetime, any prevention and treatment efforts are crucial. Below are two of my favorite Ted talks on mental health.


I struggled with what I wanted to express with this post, and I still don’t have a fully developed comment for it. However, I felt it important to share the powerful Ted talks I watched recently that provide another perspective to the social commentary that has been swelling around our troubled criminal justice system and the protests, riots, and general emotional reactions to what has been playing out on the national news in the past few months. So much of what I have read and heard has been from the viewpoint of people with privilege, something I acknowledge I share, the privilege of growing up in a safe neighborhood, with a supportive family, guaranteed an education. But our social justice problems cannot be understood and cannot be addressed from this perspective; we have to understand things from the “other” point of view. For now, I will leave the videos here and perhaps write more later. In the meantime, I will hope that we start to open our eyes to the cultural changes that must take place to allow underprivileged individuals the same fair shot at the American dream that has been sold to us all.