Somebody Needs You Today

Even in normal circumstances there are many stressors that threaten our mental well being. Depression is not just a controllable reaction to ordinary life. It is a disease that often requires treatment. Quite sadly society still tends to see it as a kind of weakness in those whom it afflicts. Far too many believe that dealing with depression is little more than a matter of changing one’s attitude, thinking positive thoughts, trusting in God. They believe that depression is a kind of selfishness that only occurs because the person afflicted with it is unwilling to “get a grip.” Depression as other mental illnesses is still hidden and all too often viewed so negatively that it is barred from open discussion. We will listen to someone describing a heart attack and even support them as they recover but we tend to squirm uncomfortably in conversations about depression. 

Depressed people often feel abandoned, alone and misunderstood. They fear mentioning their illness lest the lose jobs or friendships. Society values strength of character so highly that depressed persons are wary of mentioning their affliction, often making excuses for their absences. They too often live in a world darkened even more by the white lies that they tell to hide their affliction. 

I recall the furor that occurred in a presidential election when it was discovered that one of the vice presidential candidates had been treated for depression. Rather than applauding him for seeking treatment he was derided as someone who would be unfit for the job. The backlash was horrific and set back mental health even more than it already was. Ironically few people were aware that one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, suffered from depression that was so extreme that he had a breakdown after the death of a person who had been very special to him. 

Of late famous individuals are courageously stepping out of the shadows of depression and speaking of their own journeys with the disease. Michael Phelps is one the most notable among them. He has become a spokesperson and advocate for seeking medical help when darkness of the mind becomes crushing. He has now admitted to being plagued by crippling depression for most of his life. He had moments when he was so sick that he seriously considered killing himself even as he was one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. It was only when his pain became unbearable that he sought the medical therapies that he needed to feel whole and healthy again. 

During this time of pandemic depression is on the rise. It is often triggered by stress and uncertainty or extreme changes of normal routines. It knows no demographic limits. it can affect young and old, poor and wealthy. No doubt it is reaching into thousands of households as individuals deal with the threat of illness, loss of jobs, dwindling incomes, concerns about sending children to school, fears of eviction, struggles with the deaths of loved ones. The world is being slammed to an extent rarely endured and depression is spreading suffering on a scale that we rarely see. 

In a recent podcast Michelle Obama spoke of her own sadness during the pandemic. Even though her situation is safe and secure she has been troubled and worried by what she sees happening to so many Americans. She realizes that there is a kind of national grief that so many of us are experiencing. Sometimes the brain chemistry that creates those dark feelings gets out of hand and the level of depression becomes unbearable. She urged all of us to reach out to those that we know and love, not just in emails and texts and posts on Facebook but with phone calls and face to face conferences.

We need human contact even as we require social distances. Behind our masks are psychological needs that grow into physical illnesses of the mind if we do not care for ourselves. As someone who is an unreserved advocate for mental health I know how dire depression can become if left untreated. Many times I watched my mother devolve into a paralyzing darkness that literally led her to a state of psychosis. Time and again I had to force her to accept medical attention that she desperately needed. I implore everyone to watch for signs of distress in both themselves and those they love. Do not hesitate to reach out for help. Contact friends. Contact doctors. Do not ignore the signs. Depression is a treatable disease. 

It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to be as vigilant about depression as we are with Covid-19. The virus is creating havoc in often unseen ways. We have to wear our masks and follow the guidelines for social distancing but we also need to support one another emotionally. If the government will not provide security for those who are in dangerous economic situations then those of us fortunate enough to be okay need to find someone who is not and adopt them. Nobody should be thrown to the wolves during this time. It is up to all of us to provide support, love and understanding. Somebody needs you today. 

This Is What Keeps Me Awake At Night

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In the beginning we were mostly very nice to one another. We came together not just as a nation, but as a worldwide community. We worried as much for the people of Italy as we did for ourselves. We applauded our healthcare workers at the end of their daily shifts. We found ways to do good things for people that we didn’t even know. We followed the rules and the precautions for staving off the virus with great care. We marveled at the flights of the Blue Angels as they flew over our city to thank those on the front lines of the battle with Covid-19. We grieved over every death and felt great compassion for those who became ill. We were willing to extend financial help for those who lost their jobs. Our sense of empathy was great and it felt good to be part of a human community that was so loving and caring.

Then some of us began to lose patience. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas suggested that we needed to go back to normal quickly. He blithely announced that he and other older Americans would be willing to die to help the young to reclaim their lives. The President of the United States appeared to grow weary of the daily briefings on the virus and the lack of a miracle disappearance of Covid-19 as he had so hopefully predicted. Armed groups asserted their right to freedoms including not being forced to wear masks in public. States began to reopen even as they ignored the guidelines of health professionals for doing so. Life seemingly resumed and then a Black man attempted to spend a twenty dollar bill that looked suspicious. The police were called and before an hour had passed that man lay dead as a result of overt brutality. Riots broke out first across the nation and eventually across the world. Our community spirit was finally rent in two.

As I sit in my home I number the days that I have been isolated. It is now well over 100 revolutions of the sun that have kept me inside save for a delightful three day interlude in which I drove around the Texas hill country and sat eight feet away from my daughter and her family for some much needed family connection. I have taught remote classes with my tiny band of students and I have enjoyed Zoom conferences with family and friends. Mostly though I have had to find ways to make my days meaningful as I do my best to help in the effort to eliminate the virus as much as possible.

At first I marveled at the kindness of humans but of late I have been deeply saddened by the selfishness and lack of compassion that I witness. I wonder why those who have pensions and savings and jobs that provide them with financial security have so little concern for those who are unemployed. Why are they not urging our president and Congress to continue to provide the jobless with the help they so desperately need during this time? Why does anyone think that it is a good idea to simply abandon thirteen percent of the American people who want to work but can’t find employment no matter how hard they try?

Our Black and Hispanic citizens are literally bearing the brunt of Covid-19. They are getting sick and dying in numbers far greater than the white population. So why would so many among us not even attempt to understand the frustrations that they are feeling? Does this really seem to be a time for accusing them of being responsible for the rise in cases of the virus when we know that people went to crowded bars and beaches? Does it make sense to smear the attempts of our Black citizens to demonstrate their frustrations and only see the small number of dissidents who have made the cause sometimes violent? Should all of those peacefully gathering for justice be viewed as a group of thugs? What is the reasoning for favoring hunks of metal or stone fashioned into icons glorifying people who fought to keep the ancestors of our Black neighbors enslaved over living breathing humans who are in great pain? Does this actually seem like a time to threaten dreamers with a reattempt at ridding our country of DACA so that they might once and for all be deported? What kind of people would celebrate a threat to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic? How has our society become so cruel that a wealthy old white man rides in his golf cart shouting “White Power” and our president applauds him? How can we continue to ignore our elderly who are virtual prisoners in their rooms in nursing homes because some of us refuse to do what is needed to end the rise of Covid-19 cases? What are we doing to help the mentally ill and addicted who have had an interruption of their therapies? These are the things that sadden me.

I honestly care little about myself. My days on this earth have not always been easy, but mostly they have been good. I am happy with my life and the people who have shared it with me. I have been most fortunate. I worry most about those who are truly suffering and feeling so alone. I grieve that my country is lost in a morass of ugliness and selfishness and unwillingness to spread both the wealth and the sacrifice in such a dire time. I see such difficult weeks ahead for our young whose lives are so upended and so uncertain. Their educations and their hopes and dreams and plans are on hold. Nothing is as it once was save for the lucky ones who have the gift of health and economic security that allows them to carry on as though the pandemic is little more than an inconvenient hoax created by forces that want to frighten us. For so many this moment is all too real, and it is for them that I worry. It is about them that I write. It is impossible for me to ignore them as though they do not matter.

I am weary because I feel as though I am shouting into the wind. I do not think that I have changed a single mind with the essays that I hoped would enlighten people to at least think a bit differently than usual. I see the divisiveness of beliefs growing harder and more immovable than ever before and that frightens me more than the possibility of becoming sick. Perhaps this moment in time is only the beginning of a series of events that will ultimately change the world. It may be that we will all have to endure much hardship to reach the other side. This is what keeps me awake at night because I do not believe that it had to be this way.

A New Revolution

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There are moments for almost everyone when it feels as though an entire lifetime of experiences occur in the space of only a few weeks. It is as though one is riding on the most exhilarating and frightening roller coaster ever invented. The ups and downs are so extreme and come so quickly that emotions have no time to adjust and instead leave the person feeling numb and exhausted.

I have a dear friend who recently endured one of those condensed versions of This Is Your Life, reeling from the rapidity at which her entire world was changing. Fortunately she is an amazingly wise woman who sought help and was willing to ride the wave until it left her on the shore of normalcy. By year’s end she was celebrating her survival with people who truly loved her and speaking of taking things slowly while she can.

I’m old enough to have experienced a number of instances when it felt as though I was living through a microcosm of human existence in a brief span of time. While such a thing is happening it always seems as though time truly is relative because in the moment it moves so painfully slowly but in the grand scheme of things it is in fact only a blip in the entirety of history.

My entire world was upended both mentally and physically when my father died. At the age of eight I had not yet even imagined the possibility of such a thing happening particularly since my family had been planning so many fun adventures like weekends at the beach, a whole summer of freedom from school, moving to a brand new home. Suddenly we had to adjust to a strange new reality for which none of us had prepared.

The feelings that I experienced as an eight year old child repeated themselves when my mom had her first mental breakdown during my early twenties. I had enjoyed a reprieve from tragedy for twelve years after my father died and I had foolishly imagined that I would never again face such sorrow and emotional distress. I literally dreamed of how grand it would be to simply ignore my responsibility to care for my mother by running away to some wonderful magical place where I would never again be plagued by horrors. Of course there is no such thing as freedom from tragedy as I would learn over the course of many years. I would also realize that we have to deal with the pain that comes with the terrible moments just as my friend has done even when doing that is a grueling process. It takes time and patience to heal.

This past holiday season was one of many contrasts for me. It began with the celebration for my friend who had emerged like a phoenix from the hellish fires that had seemed to consume her. It was with a sense of gratitude, happiness, and inspiration that I toasted her heroic steadfastness. I took my own life by the horns and enjoyed glorious times with friends and family. It felt as though I was gloriously blessed and perhaps even immune to sorrow, but that would have been too simple an analysis of my world because I knew that there were also hardships brewing for many of the people that I love, things that worried me in the still of night.

Somehow many of them came to a head just as the new year was dawning, reminding me that each of our lives are fragile and uncertain in spite of our efforts to control destiny. I had to say final goodbyes to two souls whose light had always made me smile and laugh. I had to watch their closest loved ones struggling to accept a future without them. My emotions and were challenged to the very core and yet in the midst of such sorrow there was a ray of hope. I saw what I had experienced so many times, the power of love. It was there in the people who went out of their way to share their stories and their feelings with one another.

We know for certain that our lives will be a series of repetitions that all of mankind has experienced. We will see births and we will watch deaths. We will come together in a state of happiness and joy as well as mournful sadness. It is a certainty that we must experience both the good and the bad. Hopefully as we do so we will be surrounded by fellow travelers on this earthly journey who will hold our hands and give us the courage to keep going, for there is always a light up ahead and we will find it given enough time and forbearance.

This holiday season has provided me with the precious gift of knowing that I am not alone and that none of us need be so. There will always be good and loving people who are willing to help us carry our burdens and share our joys. We need to be willing to let them into our lives but also to know when we are so weary that it might be best to quietly rest for a time. That gooey ball of feelings is the essence of who we are. We need to embrace both our tears and our laughter while opening our hearts and minds to understanding our own experiences.

We’ve begun a new revolution around the sun and each day there is a new rotation. We are a part of the marvel of that scientific fact. Change will happen. Loss will occur but as long as we still breathe we are not yet in our final act. More is coming our way and so much of it will indeed be very good. 

Love Was Born At Christmastime

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so the song goes. Colorful lights add a bit of merriment to the nights, Christmas carols fill the air in cars and homes and stores. Aisles of grocery stores are filled with tasty treats and ingredients for special feasts. We deck the halls of our homes and plan for special parties and lunches with friends. Our Facebook walls and Instagram accounts fill with photos of people having a good time. It feels as though the world is bursting with happiness, so much so that we sometimes forget about those who are suffering from loneliness, painful health problems or profound loss. For some “last Christmas” is not just a George Michael song, but a reality as they face the certainty of death.

It can be incredibly difficult to watch all the frivolities and rejoicing when one’s world feels as though it is careening toward disaster. I know from profound experience how difficult it can be to fake it through the holiday season after the death of a special person. I have spent a Christmas time confined to my home with a serious illness. The season of celebration can emphasize sorrows making them seem doubly hurtful. Sadly there are many among us each Christmas who have difficulty feeling the jocular spirit and in our rush to post our Christmas cards in time and purchase presents for those we love we sometimes forget about them.

It’s not particularly difficult to make a donation on Thankful Tuesday or fill a shoebox with gifts for a child, but taking the time to genuinely remember the people around us who are struggling with sadness is all too often ignored. We sometimes fear talking about unhappy topics or being around someone who is feeling defeated or confused or sad. Instead we seek the comfort of fun people, places, and things. All of which makes life feel a bit more dreary for those whose turn in life is not so jolly at this particular time. It would be nice if we would add to our list of things to buy and do a reminder to set aside some time for anyone who might be having a hard go this December.

I have always had angels in my own life who comforted me when I least expected their notice. I cannot even begin to describe how much their compassion meant to me. When as a child the very thought of Christmas saddened and frightened me because of my father’s death only months before there were lovely friends and family members who came to our home bearing good cheer and sometimes a tin of homemade cookies or just the gift of their time. On the occasion of my Christmas confinement because of a four month long case of hepatitis everyone save for my mother and my husband’s parents avoided our family like the plague. When our dear friends Egon and Marita came to visit it was as though the three kings had arrived to honor us. Another time when my mother-in-law died only weeks before December 25, friends from the school where I worked sent so many greetings and condolences and baskets of flowers and fruits. Just knowing that someone was thinking of me during those sad times brightened my mood and helped me to remember what the holiday is really all about.

Over two thousand years ago a baby who would change the world was born. He grew to preach a gospel of love and compassion. Every aspect of his brief life here on the earth demonstrated what it means to be a human and how we have the ability to elevate the meaning of our lives through faith, hope and charity. He came not as an intolerant judge who lacked an understanding of how it feels to suffer, but instead as a beacon of hope even during the times when our lives feel almost unbearable. He was betrayed by a friend, denied by another, and abandoned by all but one member of the group of apostles that he had formed. He was jeered by a crowd that had only recently cheered him. He died a painful death like a common criminal even though he was an innocent. What he wanted us to know is that even in the midst of injustice, pain, and loss we are never alone. He demonstrated how he expected us to treat everyone. That is the purpose of his birth. He is the reason for the season, and all too often they very idea that we ignore.

I have a cousin who has produced a most loving and remarkable family. In past years he and his wife have been the joy and the life of the Christmas celebration. This year they have endured great health challenges that have made it difficult for them to feel the happiness that they once exuded. On Thanksgiving day every one of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren descended on their home bringing a feast of food and joy. After the dinner the family decorated a Christmas tree, hung lights on the house, set out the stockings and transformed the place into a lovely scene. They laughed, took photos, told stories and hugged each other over and over again. They brought joy to a place that had felt hopelessly bleak. They filled every nook and cranny with their love and no doubt will return again and again during the weeks ahead. They showed us all what Christmas should mean.

Don’t forget the forgotten. That was the message of the founder of the Christmas feast, Jesus Christ. It was a plainly simple idea that we would all do well to follow even if we are not religious. It is a certainty that someone that you know needs your love at this time of year more than ever. Be there for them and give them the gift of your love. 

That Out of Body Feeling

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It was December and we were looking forward to a wonderful holiday. My daughter Catherine who was living in Chicago had delivered twins in October and we were excitedly anticipating her visit with the babies on Christmas Eve. It had been a glorious year during which my nephew had married a wonderful young woman and we had all celebrated at his wedding. Then without warning things began to unravel terribly.

I was at school when my principal called me into his office to deliver the grim news that my mother-in-law was at the hospital. She had apparently had a stroke. I only half listened to his attempts to support me. My mind was racing a million miles away. I vaguely recall laughing off his concerns and telling him that my mother-in-law was a tough women who would most assuredly be fine. I almost laughed when he asked if I needed to have someone drive me to the hospital. I was tough. I had weathered many family tragedies. It seemed silly to think that I would require some sort of assistance.

I called each of my daughters to tell them what had happened and talked with my husband who was on a business trip at the time. We all remained calm in the belief that our beloved “Granny” would survive her latest ordeal. We knew she was a very strong woman even though she stood only five feet tall. She was the rock of the family who wasn’t supposed to live past her teen years. Somehow she had persisted and proven one doctor after another wrong. We believed that she would ultimately be just fine.

I picked up my daughter who lived nearby and together we made the trip to the hospital where the news was more dire than we had expected. My mother-in-law had gone into a coma. The doctor told me to call my husband and urge him to get on the first plane home. He explained that there was nothing more the doctors might do. Suddenly I felt the full gravity of the situation and I began calling family members to tell them what had happened. It was a grim task.

We began a death watch, sitting in my mother-in-law’s hospital room seeing her breathe as though she was in a deep sleep. She looked so peaceful and beautiful that it was impossible to believe that she was nearing death. A ray of hope stayed alive in my soul because I knew that she had proven the medical community wrong so many times before. I could not imagine our family surviving without her. She was our glue, the person who brought us together and provided us with wisdom and strength.

I suppose that I was hoping for some incredible miracle without ever thinking of how her entire life had been a miracle. As the hours and then the days passed we rarely left the confines of the hospital as a parade of friends and family came to express their love. When we did allow ourselves to leave for brief moments it felt as though we were trapped in a never ending out of body experience. The lights and decorations of Christmas seemed somehow out of place. The smiling faces of people celebrating the holiday season seemed our of sync. I recall feeling quite alone in my grief, a sadly all too familiar state of mind that had visited me upon my father’s sudden death and during the many times when my mother’s bipolar disorder took her away from us.

My mother-in-law’s passing was peaceful but that feeling of being at odds with the entire universe followed me throughout the rest of the season. Somehow we stumbled through her funeral and found a way to gather together on Christmas day. I remember thinking that the whole world was rejoicing at the very moments when we were the most bereft. It was an incredibly lonely feeling. At the time it seemed as though we had suddenly lost our way as a family and that nothing would ever feel right again.

It’s been sixteen years since my mother-in-law left this earth and we did indeed survive. I still think of her often and miss her sage advice and calming presence. I sometimes wonder how she might advise me when I am faced with a difficult situation. Somehow I still hear her voice whispering to me and telling me what I need to know. Her presence is not nearly as far away as I had imagined it would be.

I have become more aware of those who are suffering around me. I see them even when my own life is bursting with joy. I realize that at any given moment in time there are others who are wondering how it is possible for everyone to be so happy when they are bearing great burdens. I try not to ignore them simply because I am busy. I realize how difficult it is to be living in the midst of tragedy when everyone else appears to be so happy.

After my mother-in-law died it was in the gestures of people who took the time to show that they cared that I found the strength to soldier forward. I realized that their acts of kindness meant the world to me. They had stopped their Christmas revelries just long enough to let me know that they understood my sorrow. I have never forgotten them.

Regardless of the time of year when tragedy knocks on our door we often feel alone in the hell of our circumstances. The people who rally to show their loving concern are our lifelines. Even the tiniest efforts are never forgotten. We find our way back when we realize that we are not alone. Look around. Someone needs you right now. Take the time to comfort them. Your efforts will mean more than you might ever know.