God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise

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Ladybird Johnson was a Texan through and through. Growing up in east Texas she adopted mannerisms and a style of speaking that is unique to our state. One of her best quotes always reminds me of my own mother, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” My mama rarely gave a definitive RSVP to an invitation. Her assents were invariably prefaced with a “God willing” admonition. She often cautioned us to consider that events beyond our control might suddenly change even the best of plans. The sudden and very unexpected death of my father only served to demonstrate the wisdom of her thinking. I often find my self tentatively setting dates on my calendar that I hope will come to pass, knowing that the good Lord may have other ideas in mind. On this July 3, I am reminded all too well of the whimsy and challenges of life.

A year ago I was enjoying one of many events that would entertain me in the summer of 2017. I had already travelled to Cancun for a beautiful wedding and was luxuriating in the promise of more joy to come. My husband and I were spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of our children and grandchildren in San Antonio. Later in the month we were scheduled to camp with friends in east Texas near where Ladybird grew up. In August we planned to drive to a mountain cabin in Colorado to meet up with one of my brothers and his family to relax and hike, and then go to Wyoming to watch the total eclipse in one of the best vantage points in the country.

God willing it was going to be a fun filled summer, but things began to unravel without warning. On July 3, after enjoying breakfast and lunch with our family we were in the process of deciding what to do for the remainder of the day when we heard banging and a faint voice from the guest bathroom. Our inspection of the source of the noises lead us to the discovery of my husband Mike lying on the floor unable to rise on his own. It was immediately apparent from the crooked line of his mouth and the slurring of his words that he was having a stroke. From there life changed in ways for which I had no plans.

Of course we cancelled the camping with friends, the travel to the mountain cabin and the journey to view the eclipse. Our attention was focused entirely on making Mike healthy again. After his release from the hospital we returned home to Houston to begin a year long regimen of visits to doctors, healthier diets, exercise and enjoying life quietly from day to day. We had been warned that there is a statistical danger of another stroke that is most likely to occur within the first three to six months after the initial one. Needless to say I hovered over Mike like a hawk, noting his every breath, listening for signs of trouble. We were instructed not to go to isolated areas or places without cell phone reception and good hospitals, so we mostly stayed at home.

We watched the eclipse here in Houston along with others who had crowded into the Museum of Natural History in Hermann Park. The was not as dramatic as it might have been because it was not directly over our city, but we felt grateful that Mike was still here to enjoy whatever slice of life he was afforded. Only days after we heard on the news that the proverbial creek might rise here in Houston from the predicted rains of hurricane Harvey. We did not leave to find a safer place because we wanted to be near the Houston Medical Center if anything happened to Mike, and besides we could never have imagined how bad the historic weather event might actually be. We hunkered down as instructed by a county commissioner and waited for the storm to pass, only it took its precious time in doing so. In the process of constant rain for three day our little neighborhood became an island in a sea of flooding that was overtaking Houston and surrounding areas like Noah’s epic torrent. How could I have ever known just how much our creeks were going to rise? Who had ever even heard of 51 inches of rain in a single event?

It’s been a year since our trials began on July 3. Mike has not had another stroke, and God willing he never will. Houston has mostly healed but we still shudder when storms come our way. I suspect that we have an entire population suffering from a form of PTSD. I still worry from time to time and have not yet been able to plan the kind of adventures that I have always loved. I find myself tempering my enthusiasm for coming events with the realization that they may or may not come to pass. Our biggest journey in the last twelve months was a five hour trip to east Texas to visit with a former neighbor who is now in her eighties. Being with her was a healing experience for us because we have learned all too well the importance of embracing those that we love as often and as tightly as we can.

Some great friends were not as lucky as we were last year. I attended far too many funerals and still think about the wonderful people that I will no longer see. My home was spared from the damages of the floods, but people that I know had to deal with the horrors of  water rushing inside their houses. It took months for their lives to return to normal. In an ironic turn of events I experienced a small slice of their trauma when my own domicile was damaged from a rush of water coming from the hot water heater. Eight weeks of frustration later we returned to normal, but not without a taste of just how terrible the suffering of the flood victims had actually been.

We’re wiser and far more grateful for even the tiniest joys than I was a year ago. We’ll spend July 4, in San Antonio hoping for a better outcome than last year.  We’re also looking forward to finally completing the plans to camp with good friends in October, and it looks as though we may get another chance to view a total eclipse of the sun when it comes right over Texas a few years from now. There is much for which to be happy and new adventures ahead, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

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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.

Lois Lane Is Dead

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Lois Lane is dead. Well, not really, but Margo Kidder, an actress who played her, died in her sleep last week. Margo was a talented and quite interesting woman who suffered from bipolar disorder. During the nineties she had a manic episode and ended up wandering through backyards in a confused state. That landed her in the headlines and a psychiatric hospital. Somehow people mostly forgot about all of the work in film that she had done and concentrated instead on thinking of her as a “crazy” person. The truth is that once she was treated for her illness she went on to perform on stage, and in films and television, even being nominated for an Emmy for some of her work. Mental illness quite simply is rarely viewed in the same way as other diseases, and those who are afflicted with disorders often find their lives filled with loneliness as acquaintances that they once knew shy away from them.

Mental illness comes and goes in the news, but not much of substance is ever done. We speak of shortages of care and problems with laws that make it difficult for families to get the proper services for family members, but mostly it comes down to talk and more talk, but little constructive action. There are not enough doctors, not enough care facilities and not enough dollars for treatments to sufficiently deal with what is becoming a growing problem across the nation.

A few years back President Barack Obama set aside fifty million dollars to be shared by each of the states. That may have sounded like a step in the right direction, but if you do the math you realize that each area only received one million dollars, a drop in the bucket given the dire needs. In some places a million dollars is the cost of a house, and can hardly be considered a means of dealing with the many forms of mental illness that plague our society. Still, I was grateful that the president actually acknowledged the problem with some financing, even if it barely scratched the surface.

A recent study indicated that many individuals with mental illnesses go to emergency rooms to find care. While this may sound inefficient, it is understandable. I was constantly searching for psychiatrists who were willing to provide therapy for my mother who had bipolar disorder. The hunt was maddening. Some took only cash. Others accepted only certain insurance plans. Still others only wanted to work with children, or teenagers, or those in their twenties or thirties. Even when I managed to find someone willing to take her case, I often had to wait for weeks to get an appointment. If I felt that my mother was in a crisis situation the doctors almost always suggested that I take her to an emergency room.

On one occasion my brothers and I waited at a hospital with her for over six hours without receiving any kind of attention. It has been reported that many mentally ill patients will literally stay in an emergency room waiting area for days hoping to be seen, and even then there is often no room in the psychiatric ward for them. It can be frustrating beyond description because someone who is experiencing a manic episode is not patient, and in the case of my mother is most often psychotic and paranoid as well.

Imagine our anxiety when midnight came and we were still sitting with little hope of having our mother seen by a professional. Our optimism was dashed when the county sheriff showed up with a van load of prisoners all of whom had to be assessed for mental competence. Even though we had been there for six hours, by law the men in chains had to come first, and it would be many more hours before the medical professionals would get to our mother. In the meantime, she saw the handcuffs and the law men and began to imagine that someone was going to jail her as well. She became so frightened that she demanded that we leave. Of course we ended up taking her home with no medication and no help whatsoever.

When my brothers tried again to take Mama to her regular doctor the next day, they were told to return to the emergency room. They spent another sixteen hours before she was finally assessed and sent to a dreary facility in Bellaire that seemed more like a prison that a place designed to be therapeutic. It was enough to make us scream or cry.

The point is that my mother had good health insurance and still we were not able to find competent physicians to help her. I once spent five eight hour days calling all over town to secure an appointment with a psychiatrist. When I finally reached someone who was willing to help I was ecstatic. He was an incredible doctor who helped her to become well and in better shape than she had been in years. To our utter dismay the clinic where he worked decided that he was too expensive for their budget and he had to leave to work at a psychiatric hospital that would not allow him to do outpatient care. We were back to square one and my mother’s mental health deteriorated while we began the search again.

In our country we worry about so many things that are unimportant by comparison to caring for those afflicted with mental illness. We have little empathy for them or for their families. We turn our heads embarrassed by their actions when they are desperately ill. We think that somehow it is their fault that they are so often in Catch 22 situations. Only if we have to attempt to navigate through the maze of barriers do we begin to understand just how desperate the circumstances actually are. If we combine the difficulty of finding care with the stigma attached to mental illnesses the problems are compounded and complex.

I often see the eyes of my audience glaze over as soon as I bring up the topic of mental illness. It is a conversation that nobody wants to have. We are unwilling to admit our neglect and abuse of those who suffer from disorders that make them seem scary. We have yet to take mental illness as seriously as we need to do. I will keep shouting in the wilderness until I am no longer able or until we agree as a people to get something done.

A Kinder Gentler Way of Doing Things

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I suppose that we are all feeling a bit of whiplash when it comes to the current political scene. If you are like me just want it all to go away, but know that ignoring it might be more lethal than getting involved. I heard a number of commentaries just last week from sociologists and medical doctors decrying the situation, so I know that I am not alone in wanting things to calm down. Then I watched the finale of Homeland and realized that even the world of fiction is weary of all of the bickering.

A group of doctors have done some research and found that people are actually getting stress induced illnesses which can be traced back to politics. When they are honest with their physicians many folks are reporting stomach distress, headaches, insomnia, anxiety and other symptoms all based on fears related to the current political scene. Such tendencies according to the doctors are not found in any particular set of beliefs or allegiances, but appear to simply be an alarming trend indicating just how much fear is overtaking the populace. While the doctors know that this phenomenon is occurring more and more often they admit that they don’t quite know how to tell their patients to deal with it. They also suspect that the highly charged environment won’t be changing anytime soon, because we now seem to be engaged in a perennial round of campaigning for the next voting cycle. There is no longer a resting interval from one election to another, but rather a constant debate that only seems to be getting uglier and uglier.

The sociologist that I heard indicated that the normal curve of politics is changing. Whereas there have traditionally been outliers to the left and the right with the bulk of the voters in the middle, the new trend shows the middle shrinking while the extremes continue to grow. She pointed out that the moderate independent voters have been the true defenders of our democracy with their willingness to consider all sides of an argument to forge alliances and compromises. She maintains that it was the moderate who built our Constitution and later continued our progress through subsequent necessary changes. She worries that without a dominant middle ground we will erupt into a kind of deadlock that will ultimately endanger all of us.

This season of Homeland was art imitating life with its topics of political upheaval. It was a fictional call for people of character to defend our country with diplomacy and acts of understanding. It suggested that our only way forward is to begin reaching across the aisle even to those with whom we disagree. It will take trust to do so, and at least for the present such willingness to believe in our innate goodness is in short supply. We have become almost paranoid when it comes to dealing with anyone who does not think exactly as we do. Thus we are not only ripping apart the country with our demands, but also sending ourselves into frenzies of illness. I wonder what it will take to make this stop.

The sociologist suggested that some mega event may pull us together, but such happenings often bring a great deal of shared pain before the healing begins. Wars have been known to create strange bedfellows. Natural disasters often bring out our best tendencies. Somehow we need a cause that is not as horrific as either of those things, something like John Kennedy’s idea that we should race to the moon. I simply wonder if we have anyone with enough imagination to create a coalition of people who want the noise and the distrust to stop. It has been far too long since we have had much success in that regard.

I’m one of those folks who has stuck with the middle. I refuse to align myself with any party because I generally find that I don’t entirely agree with anyone or any group. I simply vote for the closest approximation to what I believe. I am more than willing to hear the arguments from both sides and I find both good and bad points all around. I find that very few individuals are perfect nor are many of them so evil that I must dismiss them. I myself hold many contradictory opinions, but some of them are stronger and more important than others. I’m willing to compromise on just about anything as long as doing so does not hurt someone.

I’ve been hearing some wonderful sermons and readings from the Bible in church each Sunday. This week began with the reminder that Jesus was all about love, regardless of our differences. We desperately need some real dialogue with one another, especially those whom we most fear. We need to honestly learn what is driving the varying thoughts and behaviors. We may find that others are not really as different from us as we may think. There are certainly those who crave power, but most of us just want to lead quiet and secure lives. Perhaps it’s time to send a message that we are tired of the anger and the fighting and are looking for people who are willing to bring our country back together again.

Sadly all of the doctors and researchers are simply screeching in the wind if we as individuals do not combine our power to create change. A brief study of politicians demonstrates that the majority of them will change when they see that we the people want something different from them. Instead of following the shrieks of the outliers, it’s time for the great big middle to save us all from ourselves. it’s time that we insist for the good of our country and our own health that we return to a kinder gentler way of doing things.

Bad Luck

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I have a friend who says that she sometimes feels as though she has an invisible target on her head that only God and the angels can see. She imagines them having a bit of fun raining trials and tribulations down on her head to see how she will respond. She’s a determined person, and so she somehow manages to survive and even win the game time and again, but she admits that she often grows weary and wishes that the fates would choose someone else for the bad luck that really does appear to befall her again and again and again. Some people really do seem to be snake bit and no amount of platitudes can make them feel better about the barrage of tragedy that befalls them.

We all know somebody who appears to have to endure one horrific event after another, usually through no fault of their own. My friend is like that. She no sooner navigates her way through one crisis than another one happens. She leads a good life and makes wise choices, but the only lottery that she wins is the one that leaves her in a new pickle. She’s lived with a life threatening disease for years that has prevented her from working which of course means that her income is distressingly low. She has made the best of her situation asking for little of material value and enjoying small pleasures. It would be nice if she were to get a reward or even a bit of respite from time to time, but she has little luck in that regard. Sometimes I want to cry for her, but know that she is not someone to be pitied, but rather admired for her spirit and determination. I’ve learned a great deal about how to keep on trucking from her. She’s a Survivor with a capital S and would be a great team member to take on a difficult journey as long as one doesn’t mind the crazy situations that seem to follow her.

There is seemingly a kind of randomness to life’s lottery and over time most of us experience the full spectrum of happiness and sadness. We become ill, have accidents, fail at some things, grow old, watch loved ones die, but also find love and friendship, travel, enjoy the world around us. Such things are part and parcel of living, but what do we say to comfort someone whose hardships seem endless? How do we help a person who does everything right but still gets battered, especially when we also see those who seem almost immune to misfortune, those with a supposedly golden touch?

I’ve been watching the CNN special on the Kennedys. It would be easy to believe that they are somehow cursed or at the very least terribly unlucky. The reality lies more in their sheer numbers of family members and the fact that they have been generally willing to take risks in order to live life to its fullest. Still their tragedies must have been almost unbearable. Sadly the matriarch of the clan, Rose, often believed that they were retribution for sins that she or her children had committed. How awful it must have felt for her to wonder why she was continually being punished when she was obviously a good woman. Sometimes we attribute reprisals to God when we should instead just understand that life is a series of random events combined with the choices that we make. The dice that we cast are not loaded, even when they just keep coming up with the wrong numbers. To believe that misfortune is actually some form of karma would be to judge those who have pain filled lives as somehow deserving of their fates. Surely we know that this is not so.

We humans have a tendency to avoid sadness. We live as though we expect the world to be  like Disneyland. We want to stay away from situations or conversations that are difficult. We shy away from people who are experiencing tragedy which only makes them feel even more isolated and hopeless. We are continually running away from troubles, wanting to solve problems with quick and easy fixes so that we might get back to having fun.

I often think of my outgoing mother whose home was a center of activity until her bipolar disorder made her frightening to former acquaintances who began leaving her in droves. There were actually people who verbalized their distaste for being around her because her illness unnerved them. They were unwilling to submit themselves to a bit of discomfort out of kindness to someone who had once been a great friend to them. Her situation made her a kind of pariah to all but those who loved her without conditions, which was little more than a handful.

We are attracted to joy, success, good fortune. We naturally gravitate to people who are doing well. As soon as someone opens his/her heart to reveal uncomfortable truths we so often look away in fear and find excuses for steering clear of them.

There are many discussions these days about teaching our children to notice and embrace those who have been sidelined by little more than the luck of the draw. We adults are suggesting that youngsters find the downtrodden among them and consciously work to include such souls in the daily interactions of social life. We would not have to so consciously engineer such things if we were modeling those kinds of behaviors in our own lives. If our kids saw us regularly embracing people who are lonely or suffering they would take it for granted that this is the way to live. Because we all too often ignore or even avoid depressing situations, we teach our young to fear such things.

Saying prayers for someone in need is always nice, but we have to do more for those who are enduring misfortune. Sometimes it takes is a willingness to listen to them complain, for surely what they are experiencing is very very hard. We may or may not have solutions, but we can provide them with the understanding that they need. We can help them by not allowing them to feel alone or different because of whatever fight is demanding their attention. We can show them that they are loved and that someone cares about what happens to them.

We get busy and make excuses and soon realize that we have forgotten the lonely, the sick, the depressed people who are overwhelmed by events that have stolen their joy. It’s time that we hear their cries no matter how silent they may seem to be. Reach out today. There is someone who is waiting for a sign that things are going to get better.