Our Hidden Universe

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As an educator I have always been interested in the human brain and how it works. Sadly because it is so complex and we still have much to learn about it and what information we do have is sadly incomplete. Part of our difficulty in understanding it lies with the fact that we have only been seriously studying the brain for a little over a hundred years. Superstitions giving the brain a kind of spiritual aura actually prevented examinations out of a sense that it is wrong to invade the sacred nature of the mind. We are far behind the kind of knowledge that we have of our hearts and other organs of the body when it comes to the brain. Unlocking the inner workings of that most marvelous aspect of who we are may one day help us to eradicate some of the most life changing and difficult of the diseases that stalk us.

I dream of a day when we will literally be able to mend our brains in the same ways that we repair hearts. Surely the universe of our minds holds secrets to eradicating mental illnesses, learning difficulties, and other diseases that now so confound us. I can’t think of more challenging and ultimately rewarding research than studying how and why our minds work. As an educator I have seen the heartbreak of those who struggle to grasp ideas and concepts. As a caretaker I have watched my mother’s beautiful mind attacked by mental illness. As a friend I observed a delightful man slowly losing his ability to think and remember. I have seen the ravages of Parkinson disease steal away a cousin’s adventurous life, and I watched with horror as a brain tumor killed another a dear sweet loved one. I witnessed in great sadness as a friend succumbed to the ravages of ALS. It seems obvious to me that we need to support the people who are quietly working to find out how the mechanisms in the brain that control the very functions of our bodies work, and why the processes sometimes go awry.

I’ve often heard that we use only a small portion of our brain’s potential. Why is that so? Are the geniuses among us simply those who have unconsciously tapped into the power of their minds in a better way than the rest of us? What differentiates such souls from the crowd? Think of how wonderful it might be to truly understand how to coax more of those abilities out of each and every human. How exciting would it be to eradicate the kind of learning disabilities that educators see all of the time?

Our brains are encased in a bony structure that both protects them and hides their inner workings from us. We have machines that can record blood flow and even demonstrate where thinking is happening, but what we really know about the brain is rudimentary. It is as though we are still working with theories about humors and using leeches and blood letting to fix problems. Our psychotropic drugs work only sometime, and our therapies are often hit and miss at best. We do what we can with our limited knowledge and in the meantime some of the most intense suffering on earth continues in those with diseases of the brain.

I often think of how smallpox ravaged the world for centuries and is now almost unseen in the world. I dream of a time when we might be able to identify all forms of brain disease and cure them with medications or surgeries. I know that there are indeed individuals devoting their lives to discovering such miracles. We don’t often hear about them or even send our monetary support to their efforts, at least not until someone that we know is struck by brain disorders that rob them of the ability to care for themselves.

We spend a fortune on pizzas on the day of the Superbowl. We rush out to see the latest movies hardly thinking about the cost of entertainment. We treat ourselves to a four dollar cup of coffee without much regret. Our expenditures make us feel good, but think of how much better we might feel if they were deliberately aimed at the kind of research that is slowly unlocking more and more secrets of the brain. A slight change in our budgets here and there might allow us to invest in work that is as important as anything we humans do.

I know young people who are earnestly concerned about phenomena like PTSD, depression, dementia, strokes, multiple sclerosis. They want to earn the knowledge and the credentials that will allow them to delve into to inner workings of the brain, but doing so costs money that they sometimes do not have. It is important that we all agree to support the efforts of those who might one day discover how to eradicate some of our most confounding problems. The work may be tedious and may require more time than we wish, but in the end the efforts may lead mankind to solutions for difficulties that have plagued us since the beginning of time. If we can make to the moon or Mars surely we have the power to have better understanding of the hidden universe of our minds. 

We have the foundations for success in place. We just need to be sure that the momentum continues. Individuals and families are waiting for the answers that will change their lives and end incalculable suffering. They keys are inside our brains waiting to be found. This is who we really are as humans. By using the triumphant side of our natures to find the good, we may be able to counteract the conditions that cause us to despair. Then we will truly be able to proclaim, “What a piece of work is man!”

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The Appointment

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We never really know when something that we say or do will have a stunning effect on someone. I can think of instances when certain people briefly entered my life and left impressions so strong that I still think of them and feel thankful that my path crossed with theirs. In such moments it felt as though we had been meant to encounter one another for all time in a kind of spiritual appointment.

When I entered my sixties I had mostly been lucky enough to have little need of doctors, but I decided that it was time for me to have a better than usual checkup. I’d heard of an executive screening at Kelsey Seybold Clinic that included all kinds of tests and a conference with the doctor all within the span of a couple of hours. The appointment included breakfast after the required fasting and a personal conference with the doctor to discuss problems and further steps. It was a kind of concierge setting with no waiting and a very personal feeling.

I didn’t know any of the doctors at the clinic so I randomly chose a Dr. Dickerson and then jumped through each of the diagnostic hoops. When the time came for my diagnoses I met a man who exuded interest in my case, but admitted that he had almost nothing to discuss in our guaranteed time together because he had found nothing troubling about my health. He laughingly asked me if there was anything concerning me that I wanted to share with him. Thinking quickly I began to discuss my mother’s difficulties with bipolar disorder and the toll her illness had taken on her and on me in the forty years since she first showed symptoms of being mentally ill.

Our discussion began with generalizations but soon led to my full-blown admission of the struggles that had continually worried me. I spoke of the guilt that I often felt for having to be so aggressive in my mother’s care. I described the chasm that had developed between my mother and me because of the role reversal in which I so often had to become the adult. Not long into the conversation I realized that Dr. Dickerson had a crystal clear understanding of what was happening and how both my mother and I felt about it. He admitted that psychiatry was one of his areas of interest and continued to to probe my state of mind, sometimes helping me to fill in the blanks when I struggled to describe my frustrations. Ultimately I cried openly, letting out all of my fears and anger without filters. It was something that I had never before done.

Dr, Dickerson allowed our conference to continue for over an hour during which time he gave me a new and healthy perspective regarding my role as a caretaker for my mother. He suggested that I use my experiences to help others in similar situations. He believed that my teaching skills and my love of writing might gain even more purpose if I were to honestly describe the journey of our family and the love that had glued us together even in the most desperate times. He asked me to focus more on my own compassion and strength rather than on the mistakes I felt I often made, and his parting prescription was that I write a book about what our family had learned about mental illness.

I have written that book which still languishes because of fears that I have of hurting someone who may misunderstand my message. I’ve had to think about that conference with Dr. Dickerson again and again because his words indeed made me feel healthy and brave. His name is included in my dedication because I don’t believe that I would have had the courage to put my feelings and my history into words without him. As I do my best to finally go public with my story I also cling to the advice that he so wisely gave me on that fateful day. When my story eventually sees the light of day it will be in great part because of the encouragement that I received from Dr. Dickerson.

I never had the privilege of returning to see Dr. Dickerson again. Changes in insurance and the policies at Kelsey Seybold Clinic made that impossible. Nonetheless I have always believed that somehow he and I were fated to meet if only that one time. Never before or since had anyone tapped so clearly into the turmoil that raged inside my head over the uncertainty that I had always felt regarding the role I played in getting psychiatric help for my mother. I had the support of very close individuals but I still constantly questioned myself and worried that I was not doing enough or even perhaps doing too much. Dr. Dickerson cleared the demons from my head and demonstrated kindness at a time when I surely needed it.

It’s amazing how such chance encounters happen. They always feel planned even as they are serendipitous. It is as though the heavens themselves conspired to create the intersection that made the powerful moments occur. There is a miraculous feeling to them, an other worldly aspect that can’t be explained. They are beautiful and memorable, but often fleeting, a single moment in time that provides us with whatever it is that we truly need.

I know that somehow I was supposed to meet Dr. Dickerson and that I was deigned to heed his words. I will always be thankful for my encounter with him as well as other times when I suddenly found myself in the right place at exactly the right time. Those appointments seemed random, but I believe that they had been made before I even knew that I needed them. Miracles abound.

Saving A Mind

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The world can often seem to be far more violent than it once was, but even a brief glance at the past proves that we have always had evil in our midst. The biggest difference between now and then is that we hear about every instance of criminal or terroristic behavior almost instantly regardless of where it happens. Not that long ago we maybe heard a one minute blurb on the nightly news or read about the incidents in our local newspaper. It was easy for knowledge of such things to slip through the cracks so to speak. Those who committed heinous crimes usually did not achieve the level of notoriety that they do in the current climate. There was not as much incentive for copy cats. There was not as much information for those with sick minds to emulate.

I have a fascination with people and the way they do things. My interest made me a good educator because I did not just provide information to my students, but I was also understanding of who they were and what they needed to be confident and successful. I quickly learned that the teen years are difficult for even the most gifted and mentally healthy young people. In following my students after they graduated from college and entered their twenties I realized how confusing it can be to transition into the adult world. What I found in my observations is that there are certain situations that lead to more frustrations and tendencies to feel lost and abandoned. Our journeys through life require love and support which is not always forthcoming for every person. Feelings of alienation are amplified by mental illnesses and a sense of aloneness.

If we examine the lives of criminals and those who do horrendous things there are often commonalities. Loss of a parent or loved one can trigger unresolved anger, particularly at certain critical ages or when the individual has other mental problems. So many of our offenders are people who have been abused or who have disorders of the mind that have been improperly treated. They are already filled with frustrations and then some comment or incident triggers the rage that has been seething inside of them. In the aftermath of their criminal acts there always seem to be individuals who noted disturbing behaviors in them but felt helpless to do anything about them.

The conundrum that we have is how to balance our right to individual freedom with common sense approaches to treating conditions that may lead to tragedy. At the present time our society bends in favor of caution with regard to personal rights. We are more likely to defer to a person’s decision to be left alone, even when our instincts tell us that trouble is brewing in his/her mind. Our laws only allow us to force therapies and treatments in extreme cases. Furthermore, we often ignore cues as being just the way a certain individual is rather than seeing them as signs of greatly needed attention.

When we couple all of this with the generalized anger that is so commonplace today, we are creating human time bombs that have the potential to go off at any moment. While we rant over things that make little or no difference in people’s lives we miss opportunities to help someone overcome the war raging in the mind. Over and over again we ask why we have so many guns or bombs or implements of violence while showing little or not interest in discovering why we have such broken beings. Maybe because we are still too timid to speak of the diseases that exist in the mind or to tackle childhood abuses that so often lead to monstrous adults.

We ask when we will have enough courage to take away the means of violence, but we rarely ask when we will have enough courage to attack the problems of the mind that so often lead to that violence. We act as though noting the mental problems of a criminal are akin to excusing the acts rather than admitting that we somehow missed the cues that might have prevented the murderous rage from ever happening, and there are always signs.

There were teachers, students and parents who expressed their fears of the young men who wreaked mayhem at Columbine long before anything happened. Their concerns were all but ignored. There was a psychiatrist who noted that the crazed attacker of a movie theater was dangerous, but she was ignored. Nobody really listened to the mother of the autistic loner who was afraid of her son who would later kill little children at an elementary school. The list goes on and on and on yet we still do not insist that our system of mental health needs a full overhaul. We continue to avoid the family with the strange acting child or teen. We forget to support and counsel someone who has experienced a tragic loss.

When my father died I was only eight years old. Few adults thought that I had any real idea of what had happened or that my emotions were developed enough to really matter. The truth is that I was filled with a mixed bag of confused feelings. I was depressed but mostly angry. Luckily my mother created an environment in which I was able to eventually sort the toxic thoughts that ran through my mind. I experienced stability and kindness that helped me to feel secure in a moment when my world felt so chaotic. It took a long while to reach a point of well being, but the healthy routine of my world along with an entire village of people who were interested in helping me led me out of the darkness. As an educator I know that far too many young people in similar situations who feel totally alone and hopeless. Unless their anxieties are addressed they will only grow more and more angry over time. Before long society will simply view them as troublemakers and evil doers. We will have missed the opportunities to help them to become better versions of themselves.

When a shooting or other violent act occurs it should be a reminder to us that we have much work to do to save more minds. We inoculate against disease and treat illnesses of the body routinely, but we are still way behind when it comes to the mind. It’s time we attempt to catch up.

In the Heat of the Day

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It was an unseasonably hot day for April, but then every day has been unseasonable this year with cold weather returning in spring and violent storms blowing in for an hour to tear things apart and then leaving as fast as they came. There was a track meet that afternoon and somehow it seemed far too warm for the long distance runners, but their heat was scheduled for late in the day when the temperatures ease down a bit, so all seemed well. Then we received the last minute news that the schedule had been turned topsy turvy like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. First was last and last was first. Everything was in reverse which meant that there would be young women and men running the 3200 meter race in the hottest part of the day with the sun bearing down on them at near ninety degrees.

We rushed to the track to view the contest and had barely found our seats when the young women took their positions for the 3200 meter race and were off at the sound of the gun. At first they did not appear to  be affected by the heat that was burning the back of my neck and causing my blouse to stick to my skin. I presumed that they were in such good shape that they would hardly notice that it was not a time conducive to attempting to run at top speed for around two miles. After about four laps around the track the toll that the temperature was taking on their bodies became more and more obvious. Their faces were turning beet red and the strain registered on their faces. By the time they had finished the course many were vomiting and others were crumbling in exhaustion or even fainting. They had made it apparent that have such a long race in far too hot and humid conditions had been overly stressful to their bodies.

When running the body responds to the outside temperature in multiple ways. The longer the time spent pushing for speed, the more negative forces are placed on the mechanisms of the body. If it is sixty degrees the runner feels as though it is eighty degrees, so running for a prolonged period at eighty nine degrees means that the runner is experiencing a feeling inside his/her body as though it is actually one hundred nine degrees. If the humidity is also high it becomes difficult to sweat, which is a necessary way of keeping the internal body temperature within safe limits. The body begins to react to what it sees as an assault which is why some of those girls eventually puked and fainted. They had unwittingly sent their internal systems into a state of emergency.

The 3200 meter race for that day had originally been scheduled for around seven in the evening. Had that tradition been followed the sun would have been lower on the horizon and the temperature would have been more amenable to a prolonged physical effort. The short sprints should have been first just as they usually are. Those runners would not have been as affected by the heat because their attempts last under a minute. Putting the most grueling race first was a questionable decision for adult coaches who should have known better. They were lucky that nobody was hurt even more seriously.

My grandson was one of the runners in the boy’s 3200. He is usually a beast on the track with a final kick that sends him in front of his competitors on a regular basis. He is highly respected for his prowess and his ability to garner some inner force to get the job done. On this day with the heat raising the temperature to what felt like over one hundred degrees his body told him to be cautious. He was a contender for a mile, but then he felt everything inside him shutting down. He became seriously dehydrated and his muscles felt uncharacteristically weak. He sensed that pushing himself unnecessarily would be hazardous to his well being, and so he slowed his pace to a trot that allowed him to breathe and brought him a measure of control. Sadly this was the district meet that determined whether or not he would represent his school at the state contest, and he was considered to have a better than good shot at being one of the top four runners. On that day it was not to be. He finished in the middle of the pack with his face red from the exertion and his skin feeling as hot as if he were in the throes of a serious illness. It was a disappointing moment, and one wrought with a sense of anger that the adults who should have understood why having the longest race of the meet in such conditions was a bad, unfair and dangerous call.

As an educator I was taught to consider all of the possible unintended consequences of my decisions before enacting them. I understood that I was ultimately responsible for the well being of my students as long as they were in my care, and so I had to be conscious of everything from the structure of my classroom to the words that I uttered. My job was almost akin to policing or being on a battlefield in that I had to observe, and think, and be ready to change course in an instant in response to each of my kids. There were no excuses for letting down my guard. I was the bulwark against any harm that threatened to come to my kids, and if I was careful and on my toes things generally went well. It was only when I didn’t think things through that problems occurred. Luckily few of my faulty decisions involved the physical well being of my charges.

I would warn those who deal with sports or band practices or any sort of activity that is affected by extremes of temperature that they consider the possible problems with their schedules and the order in which they do things. The runners on that hot day that I witnessed had only exited their buses thirty minutes before the events began. That was hardly enough time to warm up for a very quick sprit halfway around the track much less an eight lap endurance test. That should have been obvious to the adults in charge by the end of the girls’ race. Sadly, to add insult to injury some of the coaches chided the long distance runners for being unable to prove their mettle regardless of what the heat was doing to their bodies. Of all people they should have been the most aware of the error of their decision, but they staunchly denied any problems when confronted by parents who were concerned by what had happened.

There will be other races for most of the kids, and they will learn and move on from the disappointment, but if the coaches don’t also learn a tragedy is waiting to happen. There is a reason that the 3200 race is usually the second to last event and it has a great deal to do with providing the athletes with time to warm up their bodies, and a consideration of the humid heat that reaches it peak in the shank of the afternoon. This travesty in timing should never happen again, and the coaches should be willing to admit the error of their ways.

A State of Mind

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A couple of little girls were trying to guess my age and gingerly asked if I was over fifty. My response was a vague, “Sure,” which seemed to satisfy them and made me wonder how I actually appear to the world, not that it really matters. Getting older puts an all new meaning into the concept of making plans. There is always a somewhat higher probability that a sudden illness or some other change may alter a schedule. More and more often setting a calendar is a tentative affair barring undue circumstance. It makes for a bit of anxiety and uncertainty.

Last year hubby and I had tickets to go see Joe Bonamassa play his masterful guitar licks, but we had relied on memory rather than putting the date on a calendar, and memory failed us. We actually showed up a week too late. I understand that the performance was incredible, but we were not there to see it because we now know that our own minds are no longer as reliable as they once were. I should have realized that fact every time that I walked to another room to do something and then just stood there wondering what it was that I had set out to do.

This year we excitedly purchased tickets to see the Rolling Stones in what was supposed to be their final tour. Taking no chances, we recorded the date on a number of calendars and on all of our devices. We were confident that Google, Alexa, and our phones would provide us with enough reminders to get us there without a hitch this time. We were taking no chances on reliance of our “feeble” minds. Who knew that Mick Jagger would suddenly need heart surgery and have to cancel the tour? This is the man who at seventy five seemed ageless with his healthy lifestyle. If he is being called a septuagenarian in the press what hope is there for the rest of us? The irony is that Keith Richards who has ignored all of the conventional platitudes about clean living appears to be in relatively good health even as he chain smokes and ingests enough alcohol (among other things) to pickle his brain.

The fact is that we can do our best to take good care of ourselves but none of us are immortal or will miss the unavoidable signs of aging. I know people young enough to be my children who are scheduled for procedures like hip replacement, heart surgery, and chemotherapy. We may be able to stall the inevitable if we work hard to maintain our health, but nobody yet has found away to live forever. Such a realization can be depressing, or it can be an incentive to squeeze as much out of whatever time we each have as possible. It should prompt us to do that thing that we have always wanted to do, or to be that person that we have dreamed of being. The clock is ticking, but it isn’t holding us back.

I am in awe of friends my age who are still accomplishing wondrous things. They are learning how to paint, recording songs, writing novels. They go birding in the early morning hours and photograph the beautiful creatures that they see. They never miss a game or activity that involves their grandchildren. They are active in politics. Sometimes they work their adventures around doctors’ appointments and exercise regimens, but they are actively pushing themselves to enjoy each day and to continue to be part of the vibrancy of the world. They optimistically make plans, and when life throws them a curve they tackle the challenge and then get right back into the saddle.

I remember a time when a friend was caring for his mother who was not a great deal older than I am now. He often remarked that she had given up on herself and rarely left the confines of her home. She spent countless hours watching the news and becoming more and more depressed about the future. He felt that by isolating herself and giving up on the possibility of still finding meaning in each day she had condemned herself to a very dreary existence. In spite of his continual efforts to pull her from her self inflicted doom, she insisted that she just was just deferring to her age and the way life was supposed to be. She actually lived well into her late eighties with a kind of anger that drove her to complain about how long she had felt useless to the world.

I always felt sorry for both my friend and his mother because I had seen the example of my grandfather who never gave up squeezing the most out of life even as one challenge after another came along to defy his optimism. He lived to the ripe old age of one hundred eight and with the exception of the last few months he was clear headed and happy. The key to his joy filled longevity was certainly a bit of good DNA, but also his determination to greet each day with joy and gratitude. He loved the world and the people in it. He was fascinated by those who remained strong regardless of what they had to endure. He focused on actively treating his body and his brain with respect, and he believed that our best days are continually unfolding.

We’ve been told to hang on to our Rolling Stones tickets. Mick is vowing to recover quickly and reschedule the tour beginning in July. His surgery went well and he is determined to rock us once again.  He appears to be a believer that his story isn’t over until it is over, and so do I. I’ll keep making plans, taking new risks, learning new things, and getting out of my head and my house. I don’t feel thirty anymore, but that fifty that the little girls suggested as my age is about right. There is still way too much fun to be had to lock myself away with worry. Age really is a state of mind.