Put Out the Fire!

 

 

burning building

I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m frustrated. I’m worried. An entire host of emotions is stalking me and most of them are related to what I perceive as the state of our country. I can go on a little trip, watch a good movie, do a little shopping, read, visit with friends or any of the things that usually put me in a better frame of mind and I keep coming back to an emotional meltdown. My concern for the health of my country and the safety of its people is mounting. I see images of frightened souls running from a backfiring motorcycle or hear of shoppers abandoning malls because of rumors of a shooter and I know that we have reached a tipping point in our tolerance for the hatred and violence that only seems to mount as we argue about what best to do.

Frankly I’m not too worried about myself. I’ll be seventy one on my next birthday and I have had a great life. I’m going to be struck down one way or another in the coming years. It is inevitable. I think more about the innocents who still have so much more to offer to this world. I grieve that so much fear festers in the background of even the most common things we do. As schools begin to reopen once again I can’t help but think that parents are a bit fearful. We used to feel safe in the certainty that the odds of something happening to our children as we send them off were slim to none, but more recent history has taught us to think differently.

I’ve had my fill of listening to arguments that remind me that car accidents and heart attacks also kill just like mass shootings I don’t want to be lectured on the number of people harmed by gang violence in big cities. I do understand that someone intent on murder will ultimately find a way regardless of any laws that we enact. I am weary in knowing that while we hesitate to take action the numbers killed in mass shootings grow. It is as though we have sent the evil doers a message that we are not serious about our intent to stop them. 

I do indeed agree that solving the problems that we have must take many different forms of action. Our task will not be easy, and it may even reduce some of the liberties of good men and women. I have become convinced that simply discussing pros and cons over and over again is a fruitless experiment. While I believe in the power of prayer I also know that sometimes God expects us to take care of our problems. We must agree to do what will ultimately be the best for the common good. In that spirit this what I believe:

  1. We must root out hate groups whether they be from the far right or the far left, domestic or foreign. We have had success with this in the past. Now it’s time to get tough again. 
  2. We must shore up our entire mental health system. Giving a few million dollars to each state is only a drop in the bucket. It is time that we encourage research and fund the best doctors and clinics on a par with the rest of the medical community. We cannot allow insurance companies to place limits on funding care for those who need it. We have to bring mental illness into the open and treat it the way we would cancer or heart disease.
  3. All threats of violence or terrorism must be taken with extreme seriousness. All of us must be vigilant and willing to report concerns to the proper authorities just as we would contact CPS when we see a child being abused. 
  4. We must enact Red Flag laws that deny access to weapons to anyone who is mentally ill or who is on record for threatening others.
  5. It is time to close all loopholes on the purchase of guns whether at store, gun shows or from private citizens and if needed extend the amount of time for background checks to insure that all pertinent information is up to date and nobody slips through the cracks.
  6. The AK 47 and AR 15 type rifles need to be banned for use other than in the military or by law enforcement officers. The thirty round magazine should not be available for purchase by ordinary citizens. These guns are too rapid fire and they inflict wounds that are deadly and difficult to repair. There is absolutely no reason for ordinary citizens to have them for hunting or protection. It’s time to get them off of our streets. 

I can already hear the gnashing of teeth and remarks that such measures will only hurt the innocent. We’ve heard all of the arguments before and I don’t need to rehash them. I simply believe that we can no longer ignore the obvious fact that we have allowed the most hateful among us to have a field day while we turn on one another rather than taking action. If we find that what we have done fails to fully address the problems then we can convene again to determine which measures work and which need improvement. It’s what businesses do all the time. Doing nothing is akin to having a long discussion about how best to put out a fire when a building is burning down.

Many of my former Hispanic students have tweeted that the El Paso shooting hits them personally. As humans these violent acts affect all of us personally. It doesn’t not matter if the victims are little white children, high school students, Hispanics shopping in a Walmart, gays, black church goers, police officers, or young people out for a fun night. Whenever one among us is hurt, we are all hurt. We proclaim that this is a great country, and I believe with all of my heart that it is, but we have become lazy. We want our problems to just vanish with a wing and a prayer. Surely the evidence is proving that this will never happen. It’s far past time for action and some sacrifice from everyone. We can do this, and we must do so before the poison in our country festers to a point from which there is little hope of return.

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A Cry For Help

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Life is serendipitous. In spite of our best efforts there is so much about each day over which we have no control. We may leave early for work to get a head start on the day only to encounter a huge traffic jam caused by a stalled car. Our outdoor wedding may have to be rushed indoors when an unexpected rain storm comes roaring through. Of course there are even worse things that burst into our world like a phone call in the dark of night bringing us unwanted news of a loved one’s death or a serious look from a doctor delivering a diagnosis that we don’t want to hear. None of us can escape such moments. They are an inevitable part of our humanity, and yet we all know of souls who appear to be stronger and more optimistic and capable of overcoming even the most horrendous situations.

We often wonder why one person falls apart in the face of challenges and another appears to react with grace and courage. Is it good fortune? Is it a quirk of DNA? Are there actually people who don’t have to experience as much pain and sorrow as the rest of us? These are the kinds of thoughts that may come to mind whenever we feel beaten down by life events. It always seems as though the whole world is spinning in delight while we are left alone with our worry or grief.

I’ve said little about the historic fiftieth anniversary of mankind’s landing on the moon in 1969. In different circumstances I might have been ecstatically happy when I watched Neil Armstrong plant the American flag on the rugged surface of the orb that seems to light the sky each night. I had been watching the progress of space travel since my science teacher, Mrs. Colby, heightened my enthusiasm in the seventh grade. I watched Alan Shepard become the first American to travel into space in her classroom, and later gathered with my classmates in front of a black and white television to witness John Glenn orbiting the earth. My brother had walked around the house clutching my father’s copy of a book describing a journey to the moon written by Wernher von Braun. I lived in the very city where NASA was headquartered. I should have been over the moon with joy on that July day, but instead my mind was focused on other things, worries that were threatening to overwhelm me.

The summer of 1969 had begun well enough. I was a young bride of only seven months still in honeymoon mode. My husband Mike was working as an electricians’ helper for the summer, taking a hiatus from his graduate studies at the University of Houston, and making good money pulling cable under the floors out at NASA in preparation for the big journey to the moon. He worked long hours, sometimes coming home only to grab a bite to eat, shower, change clothes and return to his job again. He traveled with his uncle so that I might have our car to run errands and visit with family and friends while he was occupied.

I beat a path between our apartment and my mother’s home more often than not. At first everything appeared to be normal there, but before long I noticed how preoccupied my mother was with her thoughts. Her usual joyful nature was clouded over in ways I had only seen in the days just after my father died. My mother had been let go from her teaching job and I suspected that her pride was mortally wounded. She had always been quite successful at anything she tried, so this was an experience that she didn’t quite know how to handle. She had also been dating a man for quite some time but had begun to feel that her relationship with him was toxic. She vacillated between wanting to walk away from him and feeling a certain level of love for him. She often asked me for advice, but I was young and inexperienced and unable to fathom the depth of her concern. I thought that with a bit of time she would soon be her old self.

Instead of getting better as June turned to July her behavior became ever more concerning. She kept the blinds and curtains in her home drawn tightly shut, blocking out the summer sun. She became less and less able to follow a simple conversation and tended to burst into tears without warning. She refused to turn on the air conditioner or even open the windows, so her house was stiflingly hot. Nothing seemed to draw her from her ever darkening frame of mind, not even visits to see her mother.

Soon traveling the short distance to see how she was doing became my daily routine. Her behavior was unlike anything that I had ever witnessed in my life. I grew ever more worried when she took to her bed and began speaking of unreal fears. She suspected that our family was being watched by the FBI and that someone was trying to poison her. Her eyes darted in terror as she described her paranoid thoughts. I hoped that with time she would become her old self, but instead she only became worse.

About the time that the whole country seemed to be celebrating the landing on the moon, I was conferencing with our long time family physician and attempting to understand what was happening with my mother. I remember watching the historic moment in a state of detachment. As I planned strategies to get my mom the help that she needed it felt as though I was all alone in an otherwise jubilant world. It never occurred to me that at the very moment when I was feeling so down there were no doubt others like me who were dealing with situations even worse than mine. While in the throes of tragedy we rarely consider that our woes are as much a part of existence as our joys. In the moment of worry and grief it is so difficult to see any kind of light, and yet there are people who somehow find it.

What I learned during that dreadful time is that sharing my story helped. I soon enough realized that I was not as alone as I had thought. There was not a crowd that surrounded me, but those who did were incredibly special, and often unexpected. Over the next forty years I would turn to the kindness of both friends and strangers again and again whenever my mother’s mental illness returned. I began to realize that even in the darkest hours there is a ray of hope. We have all experienced unbelievably trying times during which it is tempting to feel as though we have somehow been abandoned. The real truth is that nobody is ever all alone. There will always be someone who will help. All we need do is open our hearts and humbly and gratefully grab the lifelines that are there. It is the small step that may help us to make a giant leap.

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.

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.