A Frontier To Explore

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The newest studies show that suicide is on the rise in every corner of America. This month alone has been punctuated by the self inflicted deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two celebrities who appeared to have it all. Those tasked with helping us to maintain mental health are almost at a loss for words regarding what causes such incidents and how we may prevent them in the future. It is a problem that has plagued mankind for centuries and we still find ourselves scratching our heads in confusion and horror whenever we learn of someone ending their life in such a hopeless fashion. It is in our nature’s to want to help, but so often the incidents come as a surprise even to those closest to the victims.

I suppose that I have always been thankful that my mother’s bipolar disorder never lead to suicide because I know for certain that there were times when her depression was so deep that she was paralyzed inside a deep dark mood. She would close herself off from the world and sit in her house sleeping and crying and feeling frightened and hopeless. There was little that we were able to do to brighten her outlook other than getting her to professional help as quickly as possible. Sometimes that was made more difficult by the fact that her energy level was so low that she was unable to dress or care for herself and didn’t think that it was even possible to make the journey to the doctor’s office. We learned after multiple such episodes that it was critical to push her, because once she received the appropriate treatments and stayed under our watchful eyes she would soon enough return to a better state of mind.

Mama’s psychiatrists always worried about suicide even to the point of suggesting that we take away obvious means of harming herself whenever she was in such a state. They also insisted that we not leave her alone. During those times she would stay at one of our homes and we would take vacations from work to watch over her. We were told by more than one doctor that Mama’s unrelenting faith in God was no doubt a factor in preventing her from ever once making an attempt on her own life. In that regard we were fortunate.

Not every tortured soul who considers suicide is so apparently depressed as my mother was. Sometimes they even appear to be happy, successful and in love with life. There may be very close friends or family members who are more acquainted with their moods, but most of us see them as quirky or a bit erratic emotionally at most. Often they are so stoic and gifted at hiding their true feelings that we have little sense that they are in trouble. Those are the complex cases that most baffle us. We scratch our heads when we hear of their deaths wondering what clues we may have missed.

The brain and its chemistry is so intricate. We have yet to uncover its mysteries or ways to successfully control its problems. If only we knew more we might one day be able to eradicate much of the hurt and pain that mental illnesses inflict not just on the individuals who have them, but on their families as well. Even when every conceivable effort is made to deal rationally and medically with diseases of the mind, there are so many ways that things may go wrong. Attempting to address such issues with routine methods may or may not work. Since most incidents of depression, mania and such are chronic rather than acute it becomes a lifelong battle, and just when one method seems to be working something changes in the physiology that requires new approaches. In many ways our work with such diseases is still in the very experimental stage. There is so much that we still do not know, and while we ponder such questions the suicide rate is rising.

When famous people kill themselves it sheds a light on a problem that is rampant in our society, but all too often hidden from view. We brag about our children’s accomplishments, but we don’t like to mention when they suffer from depression. We hope so much that we can just treat their symptoms and move on to normalcy that we sometimes overlook signs that all is not as well as we may think. I know that in my mother’s case we foolishly hoped and prayed over and over again that we had once and for all conquered her illness. We were shocked and disappointed so many times when her symptoms reappeared, even though all logic should have taught us that our vigilance and her treatments would have to be a lifetime commitment.

I have a daughter who also suffers from depression. She learned much from watching her grandmother. She also knows the pitfalls of treatment for her own disease. The medications and therapies that she receives lift her mood so well that she becomes convinced that she is cured. She wants to abandon the drugs that cause her to gain weight and to endure other uncomfortable side effects. She doesn’t like the idea of being part of a chemistry experiment. So even with her own medical training and the history of our family she does what so many persons with a mental illness do. She stops her treatments in the hopes that she doesn’t really need them anymore. When her symptoms return she realizes the mistake she has made and returns to a lifestyle that she is certain few would understand. Luckily she has a family who supports her and understands the dangers associated with her depression.

As a society we desperately need to come to grips with all forms of mental illness. They are real and not just the product of someone’s imagination. They are frightening to those who have them and those who love someone who has them. As a whole the mentally ill are treated badly. We tend to run away from them rather than support them. We make them feel isolated and misunderstood. When we speak of their difficulties there is a tendency by those unfamiliar with such illnesses to suggest that they are somehow just indulging in selfish behaviors. We often push them to “get a grip.” They hide their pain in the shadows and now and again they simply do not have the energy to continue to deal with the confusion that they feel.

I’m of the mind that mental illness is perhaps the biggest problem in our society today. I would love to see us place as much enthusiasm and dedication to conquering diseases fo the mind as we did for reaching the moon. It would be go grand to gather the greatest minds in a generously funded program whose sole purpose is to conquer mental illness. I believe that if we unlock the means of treating such illnesses many of our woes will evaporate. We must make heroes of those who work to repair the mind. Until we do we will continue to see mass shootings, criminal behaviors, addictions, and suicides. It should be clear that mental illness is the frontier that we most need to explore and understand.

As Adorable As I Was At Twenty One

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I get a real kick out of going to the gym. On most days it’s filled with a bunch of old people and I have to remind myself that I am actually one of them. All of that white hair seems so incongruous with what we are doing. There are some folks who are incredibly strong and able to do things that would cause me to collapse. There’s a white haired woman who hits the elliptical and stays there almost running for more than an hour and a half. Nobody seeing her outside of the gym would ever imagine the fortitude and strength that she has. Of course there are always a number of people who stick with the bicycle at a very leisurely pace, but at least they are out of the house and moving. The speakers blare all of the best music from the late sixties and early seventies. I sometimes find myself wondering what all of the old geezers think of the Rolling Stones belting out Satisfaction and then I realize that they were just teens and twenty somethings when that music was popular. We are all Baby Boomers grown older who aren’t yet ready to throw in the towel.

I have to admit that the mind and the body are not always in sync. My brain tells me that I am as young as ever until I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wonder who the old biddy is who is staring back at me. I suspect that my fellow gym rats feel exactly the same way, and we all have a great time sweating to the oldies.

I laugh when I think about the last Rolling Stones concert that I saw. Keith Richards was rocking but he almost looked mummified with all of his wrinkles. Mick Jagger had is usual swagger but when he danced he no longer resembled a crazed rooster. Instead he mostly moved and swayed and barely lifted his feet from the floor. Still I have to admit that he used a great deal of energy to perform and he didn’t even appear to be missing a beat or needing a dose of oxygen. The group is rather remarkable in that regard and the concert was attended by every imaginable age group, so they are still very much relevant.

It seems to me that age is as relative as Einstein tells us that time is. With a few blessings of good genes and an avoidance of terrible diseases it’s rather amazing what seniors are able to do, especially if they keep their bodies and minds active. In my own case, a daily exercise regimen, regular mathematics tutoring and daily writing and reading keep me sharper than I might otherwise be if I allowed myself to become a slug. It’s tempting to surrender to age, but I’ll leave that for a later time when things really begin to break down.

I used to watch Jack Lalanne’s exercise program with my mother when I was a young girl. Even back then I was impressed with his physical acumen, but he became even more amazing as he aged. He had always urged his viewers to take care of their bodies and minds with a regular fitness routines and a good diet. My Aunt Polly was particularly taken with his advice and I have to admit that following his lead has served her well. I doubt that many would be able to guess her age. In fact I’d like to take her to one of those carnivals where she might win a big prize for fooling everyone. For as long as I remember she has been unwavering in keeping herself fit and only recently with the deaths of her son and her husband has she begun to age a bit more quickly.

My mother used to tell me that she was not as old in body and mind as I seemed to think that she was. She insisted that she might even have more joy of living than I did as a young woman. Of course I silently and respectfully rolled my eyes at such assertions. I knew how old she was and thought she should slow down and knit a blanket instead of dancing across the living room or enjoying the latest pop music as much as I did. Now I feel foolish because I understand exactly what she meant and I am the one embarrassing my children and grandchildren. They simply don’t know how much fun and youthfulness I have inside because my countenance and my age tells the lie that I am now a senior citizen.

In fact, I am only as old as I feel and with that standard I still have a very long way to go before I turn in my track shoes for slippers and a rocking chair. Even then I think I’ll follow my mom’s example and do some of those sit and be fit exercises that she did each day that I wrongly thought were ridiculous. 

As I watch all of my new acquaintances at the YMCA I really do believe that sixty is the new forty. Alongside them I’ve found a renewed vigor that has given me energy to tackle new learning and to travel along new roads. It’s a lifestyle that is invigorating and so necessary. Thankfully my doctor has been a taskmaster who has resurrected my youthfulness even if it is not visually apparent.

Those of us at the gym are an odd lot indeed. We’re filled with wrinkles, graying hair and sometimes no hair at all, but there are twinkles in our eyes and an extra lilt in our steps. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we were to one day break out into the same kind of moves that the younger folk down the hall are making in their Zumba class. For now at least age is little more than a mindset and I know that I am as adorable as I was at twenty one.

Save the Children

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When my mother was only three or four years old her mother had a mental breakdown. The full details of the event are sketchy, but the certainty of what happened to my mom is very clear. The little tyke loved her mama and felt safe with her. When medical personal came to the house, restrained her mother, and then drove away in an ambulance the child that my mother was felt confused and betrayed. This event had a lasting impact on her that was so traumatic that it haunted her the rest of her life. She often spoke of the disdain that she felt for her father whom she held responsible for what she viewed as the imprisonment of her mom. She insisted that her mother had been a good woman who did not deserve the horrific treatment that befell her. Unlike her older siblings she was never able to accept that her mama had been very sick and in need of treatment. She had been so very young when she was torn from her mother’s loving care that it impacted the very essence of her thinking. The scars left by the separation never healed.

My youngest daughter endured a similar situation that was less dramatic but nonetheless frightening to her. When she was not yet three years old my husband contracted a fungal disease that required hospitalization and a long regimen of chemotherapy. Our family was thrown into a kind of chaotic state when we learned that the disease was often fatal. We spent months in a new routine of hospital visits and uncertainty. Years later my girl endured a bought with severe anxiety and depression. Her psychiatrist asked what had occurred at around the age of three that had seemingly caused the her to have an enduring sense of uncertainty and fear. He noted that something had so affected my daughter that she had buried deep seated emotions that were finally coming to the surface and causing her despondency. It was shocking to learn that something that had happened more than a decade earlier that was seemingly resolved had such a profound affect.

Young children see and hear and feel far more than we sometimes know. They are aware of what is happening around them to a larger extent than we imagine, but they do not always have the capacity to interpret the interchanges with their environment, particularly when the security represented by a parent is taken from them. They are unable to fully express the need for the warmth and love of a mother or father that is so essential to their healthy development. It is critical that they have all of their most basic needs addressed, and there is generally no better person to do that for them than a parent who genuinely cares for them. So much of the basic personality is formed during early childhood and every event plays an important role in development. As children we all cling to our parents and look to them to supply our most essential needs. When that relationship is suddenly severed children lose all sense of safety. Unless they are carefully counseled and loved the event will have a lifelong impact.

My father died when I was eight years old. People often marvel that my memories of the days following his death are so crystal clear. I am able to vividly recall people, conversations, the weather, and most of all my own jumbled feelings. I was far more aware of what was happening that the adults around me ever imagined. That being said, without the maturity of adulthood I am certain that I often misinterpreted my situation, and not in a good way. I became a fearful child, someone unwilling to take risks. I was afraid of people and life. It would take me twenty or more years to overcome the shock and awe of the sudden loss of someone that I so loved, and I became a somewhat neurotic and sad little girl. It was only through my study of childhood development and my association with truly caring people that I was able to eventually lay all of the demons that had so haunted me to rest.

For these reasons I am both appalled and concerned for the welfare of immigrant children who are currently being separated from their parents. I realize that we have laws, and the adults who come here illegally are breaking them. In that regard there are many needed discussions regarding the issues, but it seems certain to me that taking children away while their parents are being processed is deeply wrong. The consequences of such inhumane decisions will impact these little ones for decades. The trauma that our government is inflicting on them is morally untenable, as anyone familiar with children understands. In spite of efforts to provide food, beds, education, games and other such amenities to care for them the one thing that the little ones require is missing. They must have their parents to feel secure. What we are doing is so egregious that we simply cannot justify the actions with by quoting laws or even the Bible. We must know that we are bending the truth and God’s word when we attempt to do such things.

I love my country and believe in its innate goodness. It has of late been overtaken by an incivility that is toxic. There seems to be an attitude that winning is more important than being just. The good people in our midst are being pushed aside by bullies, and the ideals of honor and respect are all too often being eschewed by those who insist on all or nothing in their political dealings. As citizens we must join together in the common cause of decency, following the lead of heroes the world over who insist on standing for what is right rather than what will make them popular. We must end the ugliness by demonstrating our best natures. Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of our country. We can no longer allow tactics that so scorch the earth. If we don’t save the children of the world regardless of the circumstances we are doomed to a dark future. Our best hope is in finding our natural goodness again and doing what we know to be right.

Summertime and Burgers

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Even with my healthier diet I enjoy getting a hamburger now and again, especially when summertime rolls around. My dad used to grill burgers every weekend and after he died my mother continued the tradition. I’d rather just pick one up at a drive though than have to go through all of the trouble of making one at home, and in my mind there is no substitute for a Whataburger. I’ve tried In n Out burgers and they just don’t cut the mustard. (Pun grossly intended) The only other version of the American classic that I ever really liked came from a local chain called Chuck Wagon.

The first Chuck Wagon that I visited was on Old Spanish Trail in Houston. It was good but lacked the ambience of the one on Park Place that ultimately stole my heart. It was little more than a truck eatery without wheels. It was a box just large enough for a small crew and a griddle along with places to stash the meat and other supplies. A big hulk of a man labored over the cooking while sweating profusely and wielding salt and pepper shakers like a Samurai sword. He was a sight to behold along with the heavy red faced woman who took the orders. The only seating was outdoors, so unless it was a perfect weather day we would take our food home where we savored the lusciousness of our beef sandwiches that were cooked and dressed to perfection. That hole in the wall lasted for most of my childhood and early adult life and then simply faded away, being overtaken by bigger chains with drive in windows and more variable menus.

For a time there was a great place for burgers on the campus of the University of Houston in a little wooden building called The Woods. It was located on what was then the edge of the campus and run by a couple of ladies who were so business like that they rarely smiled or paused from their work to chat. They had learned how to prepare their juicy delights as quickly as possible to keep the long lines moving. I rarely had the money to purchase their gourmet cooking but when I did I truly enjoyed their culinary expertise. Their fare was dripping with greasy delight that didn’t worry me at all because I was not yet twenty years old and weighed under a hundred pounds. A little fat and cholesterol probably did me more good than bad, and I got plenty of both there. My mouth still waters when I think of those yummy bites of beef. Unfortunately progress and growth required cutting down the trees that gave the place its name and putting in a big building to house more classes and research.

I really can’t take a bad burger and there are so many candidates for that dishonor. I avoid MacDonald’s unless it’s breakfast time. If I’m forced to try one of their traditional offerings I prefer the kiddie version. I find that less burger is best in that establishment. I also avoid Carl’s Jr., Red Robin, Wendy’s and the worst of them all in my mind, Burger King.

I can’t completely explain what I despise about Burger King. It was a favorite of my mom and I always see a big crowd wherever they set up a restaurant. I just almost gag even at the thought of eating there. I suspect that I have some deep seated psychological problem with the place brought on by a traumatic event that I have blocked in my mind. I can’t otherwise think of any other reason for my extreme feelings of loathing. I would literally prefer going without food to consuming a meal from there. In fact, I once did on a long road trip to Chicago.

We had driven from early morning and when lunchtime game we were in the middle of nowhere with few choices for eating. Mike attempted to find a place that would be satisfactory for me with no success. Frustrated, he finally saw a Burger King and announced that I would have to make do. I almost barfed at the thought but decided that my strange feelings were perhaps a bit silly, and so I agreed to give it a try as long as the burger was made according to my specifications. When we got the order and continued down the highway I opened my sandwich only to find that they had used mayonnaise in spite of my very specific demand that mustard be the only acceptable condiment. I wanted Mike to turn around and go back but he was on a mission to make time and told me to show a bit of flexibility and just do my best to enjoy the nourishment as is. Instead in a flash of fury I threw the whole thing out the window onto the highway to the delight of a flock of vultures that immediately descended on the feast. I pouted for hours searching hopelessly for another place to stop. That didn’t materialize until later that night at a service station where the only offering was a tuna sandwich in one of those plastic sleeves. I decided to go hungry and sulk rather than take a chance on being poisoned. Mike on the other hand found the repast to be delightful.

Not long ago there was a news story about a Burger King in Delaware that showed mice crawling around inside bags of buns. The health department rushed out to the restaurant after a report from a customer and found mouse droppings and other filth all over the place. They summarily shut the place down. My stomach heaved as I watched the images and I found myself feeling a bit justified for my strange aversion to all food from Burger King even though I’ve never had any evidence that the ones around here are unclean. 

For now I’ll stick to Whataburger since I don’t indulge in that sort of diet much anymore. A local chef named Killen makes a rather good version that I like to consume now and again as well but his are a bit more pricey. Amazingly the most memorable hamburger that I have ever eaten was in a hotel in Minneapolis. It was so good that I went back for more multiple times before I left that town. The meat was superb and it didn’t hurt that it was smothered in blue cheese which I didn’t initially think that I would like as much as I actually did. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

For me a hamburger is the great American summertime sandwich, but if it isn’t done right, then I’m not interested. I’d rather feed a bad burger to the buzzards than compromise my standards and at least for now Whataburger has my loyalty.

Take A Moment Today

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Let’s take a moment today to do something kind for 1. ourselves, 2. someone we know, 3. someone we have met, 4. someone we don’t know, 5. someone we need to build bridges with. Be and do well. —-Ryann Madden

I slept in just a bit this morning. The sounds of school children gathering for the early morning bus are gone for the summer and so that “alarm” did not alert me that it was time to rise. Things become slower at this time of year for more reasons than just the summer vacation for our little ones. It’s so hot outside that our bodies and brains are somehow programed to take it easier lest we overheat and dehydrate. We’ve become so accustomed to the glories of air conditioning that we become almost more insulated inside our homes and cars at this time of year than we do in the winter, at least here in Texas. It’s the season of relaxation and fun, especially for students and educators. Somehow the seasons of a school year have become so programmed into my brain that I still react to the summer the same way I did when I was working. I allow myself to be just a bit more inclined to take it easy.

I won’t be able to sustain my vacation mode for too long though because I am hardwired with all of the Type A Protestant ethics that push me to be productive and to measure my accomplishments each day. I am committed to making the most of my time and descend into guilt whenever my slacking begins to appear to be a regular life change. I am mentally and emotionally compelled to make good use of my life, even as I age. For that reason I was particularly taken by this post from Ryann Madden, a teacher friend. It spoke to me because I am on a mission to transform my use of my waking hours from concentration of unimportant things to truly making an effort to care for myself and others.

Ryann’s “to do” list seems rather easy on the surface, but in reality it is laden with challenges, particularly with regard to being kind to ourselves and building bridges with someone with whom we have broken our trust. All too often we put ourselves last in the division of a day’s labor, and never quite get around to the self care that we need. We also tend to avoid those situations and people with whom a breach has caused us to lose touch. Our neglect of both ourselves and people with whom we have differed can be toxic, and yet we all too often have an “I’ll think about that tomorrow” attitude about these very important parts of our lives.

A very dear friend who is a counselor posted a wonderful blog about self care recently. In it she detailed her own personal journey to health of body and mind. She spoke of living such a hurried and harried life that she was using food as a kind of medication and she justified her neglect of herself by noting how much she was doing for others. Ultimately she found herself in the middle of a health crisis at a very young age. She knew that she needed to do more than just pop another pill into her mouth and otherwise ignore her own needs. She began to slowly but surely make a complete lifestyle change that began with thirty minutes of aerobic exercise each day and a consultation with a nutritionist. Before long she was thriving and glowing with the radiance that comes from treating our bodies and minds with the same love that we offer to others. She had not forgotten the people around her, she had only taken the time to remember herself as well.

When my husband had a stroke last summer and the two of us embarked on our own journey to living our best lives I found it easy to care for him but much more difficult to remember myself. It was simple to rationalize lapses in my own habits and it took an aggressive demand from my primary care physician for me to realize that I needed to be kind to myself as well. My doctor insisted that I was mistreating my own body and ultimately would be of little use to anyone if I did not change my ways as well. He literally gave me a prescription for five days of exercise each week with no excuses for not meeting this goal. His insistence shocked me into doing what I should have done long ago, and now self care has become an integral part of each day.

Which leaves me to the building bridges aspect of Ryann’s suggestion. It requires a bit of eating crow, approaching someone who has very apparently felt the sting of neglect and lack of respect from me. That is a much tougher situation to face, but in my heart I know it must be done. The person of whom I am thinking is older than I am. She has been isolated by failing health and loss of loved ones. She has become more sensitive and worried. She has taken some of my comments and parsed them until she is certain that I have insulted her. I have been confused and sometimes angered by her reactions, and so I have generally chosen to ignore her. I suspect that instead it is time to reach out to her and plant the seeds of reconciliation. It will cost me nothing to do so, and it may heal a wound that doesn’t need to fester.

Today is a good day to follow Ryann’s sweet suggestions. In fact everyday is a wonderful time to weave care for self and others into our routines. Think of how great we will begin to feel if we do.