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.

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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.

Discovering a Remarkable Story

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I loved my maternal grandmother, Maria Bartacovik Ulrich, but never really knew her. She was a sweet presence in my life, but because she spoke little or no English and I had no knowledge of her Slovakian language we communicated mostly with facial expressions. She was a short, round woman filled with the wrinkles of old age. She kept her hair in a long braid that trailed down her back, at least until she became seriously ill and her daughters cut it to make the task of maintaining it easier. She seemed to be of another world, another century and I always longed to be able to ask her questions and learn more about the girl she had once been. Instead we exchanged smiles as she called me “pretty girl,” and while I loved the simplicity of her greeting I wondered if she actually knew my name or those of my many cousins.

Grandma Ulrich padded around her home in her bare feet which were tiny but often appeared swollen. At gatherings she prepared cups of coffee for all of her guests, bringing the watery brew proudly in enamel cups filled with more milk and sugar than java. I loved that gesture which she repeated hundreds of times when the members of her family filled her home with raucous conversation. I saw her as an exceptional hostess who wanted us to feel welcome in her domain, and we always did.

Grandma Ulrich had lovely blue eyes, and as I gazed into them I wondered what thoughts were behind them. It would not be until long after she was dead that I would do enough research and ask enough questions to learn a tiny bit about her. It amazed me to find that this shy and unassuming woman had traveled alone from her hometown in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary to Bremen, Germany where she boarded a steamship bound for Galveston, Texas. She came to meet my grandfather who had arrived before her to pave the way of their new life together. Somehow it almost seems inconceivable that such an unassuming woman would have the courage to embark on a journey to a world of which she knew very little. She must have been very much in love, and perhaps she was guided by the exuberance of youth as well.

She arrived not too many years before the outbreak of World War II and for all intents forever lost track of her family back home. My eldest aunt says that Grandma worked as a cook for the laborers on a large farm in an area of Houston on the east side of town. Later she tried a variety of jobs including laboring as a cleaning woman in a large downtown building. When her English improved she even found work behind the counter of a small bakery. This was a daring Grandma Ulrich that I had never known, and even now I have a difficult time imagining the woman who was frightened to leave her home as such a courageous person.

My grandmother was a woman of her times without benefit of any form of birth control other than abstinence, and so she had one baby after another. There were nine pregnancies in a row including one in which she carried twins. By the time my mother, the youngest of her children, was born Grandma had buried two of her babies. Her body must have been in a state of hormonal hell as she yo-yoed from conception into post partum depression again and again. Her tiny home and her life was dominated by rowdy children whom she dearly loved, but I can’t fathom that she ever had a moment to herself.

At some point my grandmother showed signs of a mental breakdown and she was taken away by force to the state hospital in Austin. It was a traumatic time for her and for her children who rarely spoke of it, carefully guarding a secret that was too painful to mention. Once Grandma returned home she would never again have enough trust to leave the safety of her house without putting up a fight. She was content to simply create a daily routine and quietly live out the rest of her days.

I am fascinated by the woman who was my grandmother. I suppose that if truth be told we, her grandchildren, took her for granted. She was someone who was just there, an almost invisible presence in our lives. She seemed simple and yet she was so complex. We thought her witless and yet she must surely have had thoughts and dreams. Like so many women her contribution to the world was unseen and under appreciated. We did not think to connect the dots of her existence and the incredible impact it has had on the world. We assumed that she would not have been interested in knowing that from her humble beginnings in America have come engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants, business leaders, athletes, lawyers. Members of her now very extended family are brilliant and beautiful, and genetics tells us that her contribution to such success is present in all of us. Most importantly the lessons that she taught her children have been passed down through the generations. We may not have been able to communicate with her but her children knew and understood her messages of integrity and hard work. She modeled a steadfastness for them that they emulated often without even realizing how deeply her character had imprinted on them.

If by some magic I were able to see my grandmother again and actually speak with her without the restrictions on communication that once defined our relationship I would want to know everything about her. I have grown to understand how amazing she was and how worthy of my attention to her story should be. Like so many many women she was dutiful and in her role she built the foundation of a family and the future. Her contributions are incalculable but her legacy continues to blossom. Now I finally realize through discovery of her remarkable story that this tiny quiet woman was a tower of strength and I feel honored to be part of the world that she helped to build.

Lost

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Some stories stay in a little corner of the mind and never go away. I suppose for me one of those is something that I read in Texas Monthly magazine years ago. No doubt my reaction was tempered by my experience of caring for my mother when she was struggling with mental illness, but even beyond that it was a cautionary tale that said so much about the state of mental health in our society.

A college professor was enjoying coffee and a lively conversation with her colleagues inside a little cafe on the Drag just across the street from the University of Texas Austin campus. She was having a relaxing time until a bedraggled woman entered the eatery and began yelling at the cashier in the front of the establishment. Virtually all of the customers including the professor stared at the commotion with a sense of dismay and embarrassment. It was obvious that the woman was inebriated, high on drugs, or out of her mind. She wore the strange rags of a homeless person, her hair filled with tangles and even bits of debris. Nobody knew quite what to make of the situation or what to do. It was left to the manager to escort the woman back onto the street outside before things returned to normal.

At that moment the professor looked furtively at her watch and explained that she had forgotten an appointment with a student, and had to leave immediately. She apologetically put two twenty dollar bills on the table indicating that they should take care of her share of the charges and rushed out in a noticeably agitated state.

When she reached the sidewalk she searched for the woman who had just been in the cafe. She was relieved to see the old lady limping slowly just a few feet away. The professor rushed to the woman’s side, smiled and implored, “Mama, it’s me, your daughter Elizabeth. Do you remember me?”

The woman paused and with a faraway look appeared to be attempting to remember something very important. She touched the professor’s face with her grimy hands and then grinned as though a warm memory had come into her mind. “Lizzie,” she whispered, “I’m so glad to see you. How have you been?”

The professor expressed her own joy in finding her mother and then suggested that they go to her home where they might have a more comfortable place to catch up on what had been happening in their lives. She guided the still somewhat confused woman across the street, into the campus, and toward the parking spot where the car awaited. While the professor drove she exchanged small talk with her mother and thought of all of the time that had passed since she had last seen her.

The professor’s mom had been a brilliant and beautiful woman, an accomplished artist and a stunning mother. Life back then had been so happy and devoid of any indication that tragedy was looming. Her mother’s illness demonstrated itself quite slowly. At first it simply seemed as though the woman was a bit depressed, but the depression led to mania and the mania exhibited itself in paranoia. Before long the professor’s mom was undergoing treatments for mental illness that worked until she refused to take her medications. Then one day she disappeared. All efforts to find her had been in vain. The professor became frantic and lost all sense of normalcy while she invested in private detectives and spent evenings and weekends driving up and down streets hoping to find her mother. Was she in jail or dead or in another town?

Eventually so much time went by that everyone told the professor to just give up. She was becoming ill in her own way from all of the stress. It was time to live again, which she did, but always with the hope that one day she would find out what had happened to her mother. Now here she was sitting next to this raggedy lady who was not anything like the once accomplished person that she had called Mom.

In the following days the professor took a sick leave from work. She cleaned up her mother, fed her healthy meals, gave her new clothes and a safe place to sleep. She made appointments with doctors and began to think that life was finally going to return to normal. The doctors agreed that her mother’s mental and physical health was so fragile that she needed to go to the hospital for a time. The professor visited her each morning and evening. The two women began to have conversations that made sense. They expressed their love and devotion for one another. They began to make plans for the future.

One afternoon the professor went to the hospital with a celebratory bouquet of flowers for her mom. She was over the moon with happiness as she went to her mother’s room until she opened the door and found the room empty. In a panic she rushed to the nurses’ station to find out what had happened. She was informed that her mother had been released earlier that day and nobody knew where she had gone.

The professor upbraided the staff demanding to know how they could have sent her away without any notification. She demanded to know what they had been thinking. Their response was that it was the woman’s right to leave without permission from anyone. The laws did not include making the professor a party to any decisions. They were sorry, but it was just the way things were.

The professor looked for her mom for weeks and then months all to no avail. Someone suggested that her mom might have taken a bus to another city like Houston or Dallas. The professor drove to those places on weekends in a fruitless attempt to find her mother. At the time that the article was published the professor still had no idea where her mom may have gone. She was lost to her once again.

The Lady in the Window

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It was a lovely spring day at the end of March when the bluebonnets begin to emerge in the fields of Texas. Mike and I decided to take a drive to Brenham to see this year’s crop of wildflowers. Since we would be within minutes of Texas A&M University where our grandsons attend college we added a visit with them to the day’s schedule. It just knew that we were going to have a glorious time, and as predicted we were not disappointed. Carpets of red yellow and blue covered hillsides and strips of land along the roads that we traveled. We had not quite come at the most prolific time for the wildflowers, but what we saw sufficiently satisfied us. A stop for lunch at a quaint cafe, a visit to several shops, and a walk through the gardens of the Antique Rose Emporium filled out our adventure. Then it was time to head over to College Station to meet up with our grandsons Andrew and Jack, as well as Andrew’s girlfriend, Araceli.

As we drove along country roads we saw so many sights that made me wonder what the stories of the people who lived there might be. There were majestic farm houses and abandoned shacks, fertile fields and patches of land littered with junked cars. We saw neat mobile homes and those that appeared ready for an installment of “Hoarders.” My curiosity was in overdrive as I viewed poverty and neglect existing side by side with plenty. I wondered what makes the biggest difference in the tenor of a person’s life. I suspect that if we only knew exactly what causes such differences we might be able to one day eliminate them, but for now we struggle to know what to do to make life more secure and equitable.

We had some time to kill once we reached College Station which was alive with the kind of energy that Friday nights seem to engender in young people who have theoretically been studying all week. We decided to pass the time at a Starbuck’s near the apartment where one of our grandson’s lives. As we approached the establishment I noticed a shopping cart filled with sheets and blankets standing on the pavement as though it had been suddenly abandoned. Nobody made a move to investigate or move it. Passersby simply walked around it.

Inside the Starbuck’s a woman swathed in white sheets from head to toe sat alone at a table near the entrance. She was almost motionless as though she were deep in thought. The other customers of the coffeehouse seemed unaware of her presence. They read their books, typed on their laptops and conversed with one another as though there was nothing strange or out of place with the woman. I decided to follow their lead and attempted not to look in her direction too often or to stare in amazement, a bad habit that my curiosity causes me to to do more frequently than I should.

Mike and I ordered our drinks and sat down just across from the interesting soul who was holding court with herself. Her clothing was made entirely out of white sheets, including an elaborate headdress that seemed perfect for an exotic ceremony of some sort. She actually looked quite lovely and I was impressed with her creativity thinking that if I were to try to fashion such an outfit it would surely fall from my body. Her robes were secure and gave her an exotic air. Still I wondered how she was able to sit so placidly without a beverage or any sort of food and appear to be so content with herself, so relaxed. Surely she realized that to others she was an unusual sight, and her cart appeared to be an indication of a homeless situation.

The workers in the Starbuck’s did nothing to disturb her repose. I suspect that after the fiasco that ensured a while back at another Starbuck’s where a manager asked someone who was waiting for a friend to leave the employees were leery to make waves. Thus the interesting figure by the window simply sat trancelike and seemingly without much notice, save from me.

Eventually Jack met us at the Starbuck’s and we left for the restaurant to meet the rest of our party. As soon as we were in the car he noted that we had seen a kind of celebrity in the college community. For lack of a true name he called her “sheet lady.” He told us that she is often seen walking or resting all over the area. He wasn’t sure what her true situation was, but like me he marveled at her ingenuity and survival skills. Nonetheless we engaged in a discussion of the homeless and the problems that they face. He told us of a man who had recently harassed students as they walked to and from class who seemed to be in a kind of psychotic state. He pointed out that the lady on the other hand always appeared to be quite harmless, and so nobody felt uncomfortable around her other than to worry about her safety.

At dinner Andrew remarked that he had seen the lady walking with her cart miles away from the university. He told of a rumor that she was part of some religious group and there her behaviors were part of the rituals associated with the sect. Of course we all conjectured that she was most likely suffering from some form of mental illness. Sadly it appeared that she preferred her vagabond lifestyle to accepting charitable offers for housing with behavioral strings attached.

I still think of the lady in the window even as I sit in my home. I truly wonder what brought her to such a lifestyle and if there is some loved one searching for her. I’m glad that she has a safe place to sit and rest. I hope that when it rains or is cold someone offers her refuge for the night. She appeared to be quite content, but perhaps that was simply a facade. I’d like to know what musings pass through her mind, but then that is a private thing for me to know only if she wishes it to be so. Still I wonder, “Who is she really?”