God Knows Where I Am

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I have had two passionate causes in my life. One was made by my own choice. The other was forced upon me by circumstance. Both of them have been major forces that weaved through every single day of my adulthood and seemingly defined my purpose here on this earth. One is a popular political football of sorts, often discussed but rarely resolved. The other is almost taboo, the sort of topic carefully whispered about, and almost always entirely misunderstood. Of course I am speaking of both the education of our young people and the almost haphazard way in which we deal with those among us who are mentally ill.

Those who know me well and those who read my posts understand that I have devoted myself to helping students and their teachers to find quality classrooms and educational standards that include learning how to think critically and how to lead meaningful lives. While there are still great problems with schools and universities that include both methodologies and financial considerations, I am far from alone is voicing both my concerns and my ideas for approaching them. Teachers, professors, parents, and the students themselves are quite vocal about their expectations for preparing each generation for the future. As such education is a subject that quite often finds its way into political discourse. There is much debate over financing and structuring of our public school system, and such discussions while slow to cause actual changes still manage to keep a modicum of attention on one of the most important issues in our country.

On the other hand, mental illness and how we deal with it is a kind of orphan. It is one of those exceedingly uncomfortable subjects that make us squirm even at the mere mention. Furthermore it is maddeningly misunderstood by those who have been fortunate enough not to experience its crushing effects. It is a disease with physical origins that are not as easy to see as a case of diabetes or a heart attack. The science around it is still in its infancy compared to other medical issues. There are few massive institutions like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that are dedicated to unlocking the secrets to combating mental illness. The funding for those who choose to enter the world of psychology or psychiatry is generally well below that of other medical fields, and, speaking of fields, we never see athletes donning a color to promote support and awareness of those individuals and their family members who fight relentlessly and alone to care for loved ones ravaged by mental illness. It is all too easy to believe that nobody is particularly concerned about those who endure diseases like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other forms of mind numbing illness. Instead we look away from those that we all too often blithely categorize as “crazy.” In fact, I am certain that I lost many of my potential readers in the first paragraph of this blog as soon as I mentioned mental illness.

I have not secreted the fact that my dear mother had bipolar disorder nor that me and my brothers became her lifelong caretakers in an odyssey that lasted from 1969 until her death in 2011. It was often a frustrating journey punctuated by a seeming lack of concern by a society that all too many times shunned our mother when she was most in need of support. A lack of doctors, hospitals, finances and most of all understanding complicated our search for a kind and compassionate resolution to her needs and ours. Along the way we encountered dedicated professionals who were as troubled as we were like Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Jary Lesser, but we also found many who had been so chewed up alive by the laws and the lack of funding that they had become far too cynical to be of help. We learned who the people were that we could trust, and realized that their numbers were far fewer than we had hoped.

On this past Sunday I received a text from my youngest daughter insisting that I watch a documentary on Netflix called, God Knows Where I Am. Without revealing any spoilers she simply said that it was sad but quite good, so I decided to end what had been a glorious day spent with my grandsons by viewing the film. I soon learned that it was the story of a woman who was found dead inside a vacant farmhouse, seemingly the victim of starvation. Amazingly she had filled several spiral notebooks with daily descriptions of her strange saga including a final declaration that included her name, Social Security number, and designation of where she wished to be buried. What investigators ultimately found is that the victim, Linda Bishop, was from a middle class family that had been filled with love and delightful experiences. Linda was well educated and possessed a personality that garnered her many friends. She married, had a daughter whom she adored, and eventually divorced. The rest of the tale devolves into a brutally heartbreaking saga of her crushing fall into mental illness and the ways in which our current system of dealing with cases such as hers totally failed both Linda and her family.

As I watched the film I found myself feeling as though it was my own mother’s story and that of me and my brothers. I was able to relate to every segment of the unfolding tragedy. My stomach clinched into the old familiar knot that often plagued me whenever my mom was particularly sick. I have been to all of the same dark places that Linda Bishop’s loved ones have been. I know from my own experiences how much truth lies in this documentary, and I hope beyond hope that enough people will watch it and embrace it so that a kind of revolution will begin aimed at fixing a very broken system that too often leaves everyone concerned in a state of abject fear and dejection.

My brothers and I were lucky enough to keep my mother from the kind of harm that overcame Linda Bishop, but it was a battle that we waged virtually every single day, and mostly alone. It was a fight not just for her life but our own. I know that we made many mistakes, but ultimately we slew the dragon of ignorance and lack of concern that made every step of the way more difficult that it need have been. I will speak out for those who have mental illnesses and for their families until I draw my last breath. I will never quite understand why it is not yet one of the most important causes in our world, but I will not let the lack of interest stand in my way of bringing awareness. For now I simply implore everyone to watch God Knows Where I Am. Surely it will tear at your heart.

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Inventing a New Way

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When I was growing up I knew a number of elderly people who lived with their children who cared for them until the day they died. It wasn’t all that unusual to see households composed of extended family members. My own maternal grandmother lived with her two bachelor sons and the rest of her children often took turns sitting with her whenever she became too sick to leave her bed. She died peacefully in her home with her loved ones hovering over her.

My husband often speaks of his grandmother and mother caring for his great grandmother who had been struck down by a stroke. It was an exceedingly difficult task because the woman was unable to move on her own and she had become chronically irritable because of her afflictions. He often heard her screaming at the ladies who attempted to tend to her every need. They understood that she was the victim of her circumstances, but that knowledge didn’t make their task any easier.

By the time I became an adult the idea of having several generations living under one roof seemingly went out of style. I only knew of a couple of people who opened their homes to elderly relatives. One was a very compassionate neighbor who lovingly cared for her invalid mother-in-law. It was hard work because the woman could never be left alone. One time I went to help out by sitting with the sickly lady, and I was physically and mentally worn out by the end of the session. 

I had one other friend whose mother lived with her, but the older woman in this case was healthy and energetic and helped greatly with duties around the house. I used to love visiting their home because the two women laughed and joked with one another constantly and always offered me fresh cookies that they had baked together. They made their somewhat unique situation seem almost idyllic.

Eventually my own mother spent a little more than two years living either with me or my brother. She was in relatively good health, but her mental difficulties required more and more monitoring as she aged. She and I both struggled with the enforcement of her daily medication intake. She felt that I was overstepping my bounds, and I felt beset upon by the battles that ensued each day. If it had not been for the clash of wills, I would have viewed her time in my home with great joy. I liked having her at our dinner table each evening and talking with her about my work day. She possessed a kind of folk wisdom that helped me, and I valued her opinion. She appeared to be doing very well while in my care, so it was shocking to learn that she had lung cancer. In fact, I was reluctant to believe that she was as sick as she was. I’m still happy that I was able to provide a safe and loving place for her until the very last few days of her life when she had to go to the hospital. 

The number of elderly individuals no longer able to take care of themselves without some supervision will continue to grow as the “Baby Boomers” enter their seventies and eighties. The question becomes how our society will be able to adequately care for those who require assistance in their daily routines. There are already a number of companies that are creating technologies that may support the younger generation in dealing with the coming surge.

Of course there are some people whose illnesses require twenty four hour care. Nursing homes will no doubt become crowded, but what I know from friends is that they are not the only answer. I know many people who realized that their parents needed to be in a more professional facility than their homes, and then found that they had to monitor the care they were receiving on a daily basis to insure that it was being carried out properly. It was an exhausting experience that required energy, patience and joint efforts by siblings.

The idea behind many of the new devices being invented and used is to provide caretakers with systems to monitor all of the necessary activities of older adults. There is technology that will detect heart problems, recognize when someone falls, note when a person has not moved for an inordinate amount of time. check blood sugar, send alarms when daily medications have not been taken, and alert caretakers and first responders in the event of an accident or health emergency. The Echo Dot is capable of turning lights on and off, playing music, setting clocks and even running microwaves and ovens. The Roomba will vacuum a house on a schedule and then return to recharge after doing the work. There are devices that help people to get out of their beds and into wheelchairs without human assistance. Cameras can run a feed to caretakers even when they are offsite.  Doors can be locked and unlocked without from afar. The cell phone has already changed the ways in which we communicate. Before long there will be self driving cars that will allow the elderly to just key in a destination and then sit back until arrival. Uber and other such forms of transportation are already taking people places with little or no trouble. Because all of these inventions will no doubt be profitable, I expect inventors to come up with even more new and better ideas at a rapid pace. 

Best Buy is banking on this kind of revolution happening to the extent that they are going whole hog into to the business of providing their older customers will all sorts of ways of taking care of themselves and keeping their children less anxious about what may be happening to them. While such a focus from major retailers won’t solve every problem, it will go a long way to encourage those with great ideas to monetize them and make them available to the public. It’s going to be exciting to watch our society change in the ways that we deal with our aging population.

Of course there is no substitute for the loving concern of family members. Even in the present it’s a bad idea to put an older individual in a facility and then just walk away. There has to be a routine of visiting and checking to be certain that all is going well. What we do know is that most people wish to stay at home as long as they can, but sometimes that just won’t work for a multitude of reasons. When we manage to find the right environment for them so much worry is lifted from everyone’s shoulders. The coming world may make our choices more plentiful and easier than they have ever been. I will enjoy watching the progress unfold.

We’re All In This Together

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The news cycle moves rapidly these days. A big story on Monday is often moved aside by one even more exciting on Thursday. So much information overloads our brains that we sometimes choose to just ignore the march of sensational topics. Once a subject leaves the front pages it is all too often quickly forgotten, and so the floods and damage of a hurricane become old news even as the people who have been affected still struggle with the after effects. Like a small child in a room full of toys our interest flits from one thing to another, but in the real world there are issues that don’t really go away as much as become old news.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the world was mesmerized by the ebola outbreak that took place in African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. As the disease claimed thousands of victims, a kind of fear gripped everyone. We literally wondered either silently or aloud if this would be the kind of pandemic that killed millions at the beginning of the twentieth century. Just as back then researchers were hard pressed to explain exactly what caused the sudden spread of the disease, and medical personnel were treating the illness on the fly, learning from mistakes and hoping for the best. In many ways the epidemic ended as mysteriously as it had started. It seemed to have simply burned itself out, but many who study such things found themselves wondering if this was just a lucky break. Research into the causes and control of such diseases continue in laboratories across the world, but public interest has waned since that time. It’s old news that turned out well for most of the world save those African countries most afflicted. As curious as I have always been about such things, even I generally put the whole event out of my mind, at least until I viewed a film made in Sierra Leone during and after the tragedy that took so many in that country.

A group of locals from Sierra Leone had the foresight to record the human toll from ebola by showing relief efforts as they unfolded and interviewing family members and friends of those who had contracted the disease. The rawness and reality of the story was heartbreaking, frightening and inspiring. The film revealed just how courageous so many of the people were during that terrible time. There were local nurses and doctors who had never before dealt with anything so terrifying who nonetheless put their lives on the line day in and day out. There were families that were quarantined and separated from loved ones who became pariahs by association. There was great fear within cities and towns each time a new victim began to show signs of contracting the disease.

I found myself cheering for the people who rose to the occasion by assuming leadership roles in the face of grave danger. Among them were priests, imams, and ministers who shepherded their congregations and urged them not to fall for stories of demons causing the illnesses. Instead they helped health workers to spread the word of how to use proper hygiene and when to isolate those who became ill. Any of these brave souls might have contracted ebola themselves but they found the wherewithal to do the jobs that they knew must be done.

Perhaps the saddest feature of the film focused on a group of homeless boys who lived on the streets scrounging for food and lodging. It showed them regularly visiting a landfill in search of items to trade for money. They walked on mountains of refuse in their bare feet in order to survive from day to day, all while the terrible disease raged  around them. They were survivors, not just from ebola, but from the very act of living.

In the film there were interviews with individuals who had lost entire families. The human spirit was still alive and well in them, but I have little doubt that they bear huge scars that will never quite heal. When we read the statistics of the thousands of people who died they are just numbers to us coming from a far away place. For the people who lived through this nightmare they are a reality as tragic and heartbreaking as any disaster that suddenly washes over our humanity.

We have erected memorials to those who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the innocents who were killed on 9/11. We are disturbed by the sinking of the Titanic and cry at the thought of those who lost their lives without warning. We are appalled by the needless deaths of anyone, and yet the impact of the ebola epidemic has come and gone, leaving both its victims and survivors to deal with its effects mostly alone. The film that I watched challenges us to remember the humanity and importance of each of the people who endured this incredibly frightening time.

I realize that we can’t always be worried about “might have beens” or future possibilities, but history has shown time and again that horrific things often happen when we least expect them. During those epic moments there are always everyday people who become heroes and then quietly return to their lives when the danger is over. There are souls who suffer so badly that they never quite get over the raw emotions of the event. Then there are those who lose their lives, all too quickly and sometimes even painfully. We must never forget them, regardless of how far removed from us they may appear to be. We are all in this struggle called life, and it would behoove us to understand that what affects one of us may one day affect all of us.

Remembering

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We’ve all had those moments, the times when we purposefully walk from one room to another only to forget what we had intended to do when we got there. Our memories are rather funny things. We find ourselves recalling instances from our childhood but can’t remember what was said five minutes ago. Our brains are filled with so much information that unless we anchor our thoughts to something significant or routinely repeat sequences we tend to lose those ideas.

I have the strange ability to recall vivid aspects of my childhood, even details from when I was still a toddler. I once described an event to my mother that kept frightening me, but I was unable to place where and when it had happened. I was on a boat with many people who were happy and enjoying the view. I sat on my mother’s lap feeling content until everyone suddenly ran to the edge of the ship and began pointing at an awesome figure standing in the water. My mom lifted me and joined the crowd, pointing out the monstrous steel object with a glee that should have comforted me, but did not. Instead I felt frightened and confused by the dark apparition that I was seeing.

When I recounted this memory to my mom she thought for a moment and came to the conclusion that I was describing our visit to the Statue of Liberty in New York City. She even produced a photo album with old black and white photos of the two of us sitting on the boat that took us out into the harbor. The strangest thing was that I could not have been more than about two years old when we took this trip. It seemed implausible that I would have recalled the event so clearly, and yet somehow I did.

Researchers have now learned that some individuals like myself are truly able to remember incidents from very young ages. Generally such people tend to exhibit obsessive compulsive traits as well. Somehow our brains notice and internalize even small details about particular situations. Most interesting is the concurrent fact that we also may be incredibly forgetful in the course of our daily activities when occurrences are mundane unless we take the time to create memory structures for ourselves.

I’ve been known to lose my glasses, leave my keys in a public bathroom, forget where I placed some rarely used item. Thus I find myself consciously rehearsing my mind to be certain that I don’t neglect something important. I create rigid routines to keep myself on track. The fact is that the vast majority of humans might easily become forgetful whenever their normal schedules are somehow changed. It is as though our brains become rattled, short out so to speak.

In these exceedingly hot summer days we hear tragic stories of children left in hot cars who die. Many times the parent honestly asserts that he/she did not remember that the child was in the back seat. They had become distracted by some chance adjustments to their normal ways of doing things. While such occurrences may seem improbable, those who study the mind say that it is not as unlikely as we may think, and it may happen to any one of us.

I heard a man tell of how he always drove his son to daycare and then he went to work. One morning his wife’s car was in the shop and so he first drove her to her place of business with the intent of taking the child to daycare next. Somehow in the morning rush and because his routine had been disrupted he actually did forget that his baby was still in the back seat. He parked in his usual spot and went to his office where he worked for an hour or so before something niggled at his brain and reminded him that he had never dropped the baby off. He rushed to the parking garage and found his boy in distress. Luckily all ended well, but it might have been the stuff of an horrific news story.

What we are being told is that we have to create artificial reminders for ourselves for even the most mundane tasks if we are to be certain that we do not forget to do them. If we have children in a car with us, we might place something like our purse or shoe in the back seat as a way of ensuring that we do not forget that they are present. We can create alarms and reminders on our electronic devices.  We might even place sticky notes where they will be seen if we need tactile prompts. The point is to understand that it is actually a natural tendency to forget when our minds are preoccupied with so much information. It is up to us to create ways that work for us if we are to keep up with the overload of data that is passing continuously into our minds.

Too much forgetfulness can be a sign of bigger problems, but most of the time our lapses are just part of being normal. So go ahead and create routines, make lists, rehearse ideas, take enough time to be deliberate when in a foreign situation. It may save you from a real tragedy.

Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.