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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A Tortured Mind

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My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by multiple doctors. There was no cure for her disease, but there were pharmaceutical treatments that worked for a time and then invariably had to be adjusted. She faced a lifetime of dealing with a chronic illness that required both patience and vigilance, which was not always easy because there were moments when she was not a pleasant person at all. In those instances she was unable to sleep, and lost track of time. She was filled with paranoid ideas and conspiracy theories that she felt compelled to share in the middle of the night. Her explosions of emotion and fear sometimes resulted in vile utterances that were difficult to hear. My brothers and I not only had to be forceful in providing her with the care that she needed, but had to worry about what she might do or say to get herself into a difficult situation with strangers who might be frightened by her aggressive and strange behavior. It was a battle that we fought for her for well over forty years.

I was thinking of my mom and the problems associated with her mental illness when the firestorm over Roseanne Barr erupted last week. The egregious and racist nature of Ms. Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarret left me loathing her even more than I already did. I think I only watched her show one time back when it was the original series. I loved John Goodman, but I was unable to identify with the crudity of Roseanne. In other words I was not a fan. Still, I knew many people who loved the show and I had to admit that she had a certain talent even if I did not appreciate it. “To each his own” was my reaction to her fame and popularity while I generally ignored her and knew little about her.

When she and her former cast returned for a reboot of the sitcom I found myself wondering why we have so little originality these days that we keep returning to old ideas. Perhaps it is a longing for a quieter past, a time before 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the civil war of words and political ideas that is so prevalent today. I wasn’t sure what the rationale might be, but I saw no harm in giving a particular segment of the audience the kind of comedy that they wanted while I watched The Middle.

Then came the Roseanne firestorm after her rambling ugly tweets resulted in her firing by ABC. To be clear the First Amendment protects her from punishment by the government, but not from repercussions at work. In fact, all of us would do well to understand that our public statements can and often will be seen as a reflection on our employers who have every right to let us go if they feel that we have gone too far. I can’t imagine anyone believing that Ms. Barr did not go too far. As an educator I recall instances when we meted out severe punishments including expulsion to students who voiced similar racist comments. There are certain lines over which none of us should ever cross, and if we do we must expect to pay the consequences.

By her own admission Roseanne Barr suffers from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. When she attempted to excuse her horrible tweets by noting that it was the middle of the night and she had taken Ambian I found myself wondering if she was in the throes of a manic episode. It was probably not her sleep aid that caused her rants, but rather her disease and the fact that it does not allow her to sleep the way she needs causes her to lose all caution with regard to what she says and does.

My mother once described bipolar disorder as an illness that caused her to say and do mean things when she didn’t want to do. She explained that she felt a compulsion to strike out at people that she was unable to control even when she tried. I know that I was the victim of her hurtful behavior many times over, but I understood what was causing the disturbances. People outside of the family simply found themselves wounded to the point of wanting to avoid her all all costs.

I in no way defend Rosanne Barr. I find her to be a foul mouthed and hateful person. Even if her tweet was indeed intended to be a joke it was far too ugly to be humorous. Her thoughts rarely change, so I believe that the essence of what she believes is contained in them, and that spirit is highly toxic. My mother was truly like two different people. When she was well everything about her was delightful and loving. It was only when she was sick that a kind of darkness prompted by fears came forth. On the whole she was a good person. I can’t say the same about Ms. Barr who seems to take delight in putdowns and shaming no matter what the situation.

An even more ridiculous argument in Roseanne’s favor is to point to others who are just as guilty of horrific comments and note that they have not been fired. That is akin to saying that just because someone else hasn’t been called to task for bad behavior, nobody should be. It is a circular defense that simply does not fly.

Our entire society is a bit sick right now. We need to be honest with ourselves and step back a bit before we find ourselves up against a wall from which there is no retreat. In many ways we have lost our national honor and are all too often guilty of perpetrating disgusting behaviors by our silence and even misguided support of acts and utterances that we know to be wrong. If we do not get a grip on this situation it will overtake us, for surely we are being manipulated by powerful forces whose only goal is to have power.

I actually feel sad for Roseanne Barr even though I find her to be despicable. I think that she is crying for help and nobody is really listening. I hope that those who love her will see the signs of her tortured mind and get her the relief that she needs. That will require a dose of kindness and medical attention. Hopefully her horrific pain won’t just be ignored, and I pray that we will not further divide ourselves by foolishly agreeing with the wanderings of her very sick and tortured mind.

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.

Who Will Hear Our Cries

pexels-photo-170840.jpegAs a mom, a grandmother, a teacher, a human being I grieve over the violence in our world. As a problem solver I wonder what we might do to lessen the number of tragedies that our society must endure. As a realist I understand that most issues are far too complex to be successfully resolved with simple solutions. As someone who prefers getting things done to continually ignoring situations, I am frustrated by the bickering among our lawmakers that seems to perennially end in stalemate. I have grown weary of being able to predict the various responses to the major concerns of our time. I find myself searching in vain for leaders who will set aside their own quests for power to become the heroes that we so desperately need. There are so few profiles in courage in our precarious times. Where is an Abraham Lincoln, a Martine Luther King Jr. or a Gandhi? What will it take for the wars of words to stop and the work to begin?

We find ourselves at a perennial impasse. We struggle to even set governmental budgets that allow us to live within our country’s means. We know that we need answers to questions about immigration, but when good souls attempt to forge compromises, the “all or nothing” crowds shoot down any possibilities of resolution. We bow to the bullying demands of the outliers rather than listening to the reason of the middle ground. We can’t even make a deal to insure that all Americans have access to rudimentary healthcare. Again and again we lower our heads in grief, shame and prayer over mass shootings that surely might be mitigated if only we were willing to set aside all of our prejudices and simply build a plan.

On the very day meant to celebrate love, a deranged shooter entered a high school at the end of an academic day and began randomly shooting. He was indeed a troubled soul whose history had alerted many who knew whom. He had been adopted by a loving family but in spite of their efforts to provide him with the nurturing that he needed, things went awry. His father died when he was still a young child. His mother did her best to raise him alone but struggled with his emotional and behavioral issues. She sought the help of therapists and even contacted the police from time to time hoping to find answers to her concerns about her son. He was different, withdrawn, violent, frightening to many who knew him. Fellow students joked that he had the mind of a mass murderer. His school expelled him. A stranger noted one of his posts on social media and even reported him to the FBI. In November, his mother contracted the flu, then pneumonia and died. He was on his own but found shelter in the home of a friend. There were so many clear indications that he needed heavy duty counseling, maybe even medication but none of it was demanded or even offered. Instead he freely purchased guns even as his online posts became more and more foreboding.

There were so many individual measures that might have been taken with this young man that were not. Whether they would have prevented the massacre that he inflicted on innocent students is debatable, but at the very least there would have been attempts to curtail the ticking of the time bomb that was exploding in his mind.

The mental health system in this country is broken. Getting needed care is costly, time consuming, and ultimately frustrating. The cards are stacked in favor of doing nothing, leaving countless individuals and their families and friends feeling alone and even betrayed. All too often it becomes easier just to give up and let the cards fall where they will. The financial and mental energy needed to ameliorate mental health issues is far more costly than it needs to be. It is difficult to find doctors willing to take  on particular cases. The cost can be prohibitive and even with insurance the coverage is spotty at best. The patients themselves more often than not fight against treatments. They can become violently opposed to any form of needed therapy, resulting in a tendency to ignore the obvious and just look away. Even when a family manages to insist on medical intervention or hospitalization the science of mental health is still almost experimental. It takes time and patience to find the right keys to health. Most mental difficulties are chronic so the difficulties become a lifelong struggle. It can be a lonely and never ending fight for both the person affected and those attempting to help him/her.

We desperately need for both our political and medical community to face the realities of the mental health epidemic that plagues us. it is real, not imagined and it is well past time for our society to embrace a well reasoned plan for insuring that nobody is left to deal with such illnesses alone. it will take money, but that is not the only resource that we need. There must be more doctors, more research, more support systems. better coverage of mental healthcare, more facilities for rehabilitation, more openness in discussing these very real illnesses.

Every school needs additional counselors devoted only to the mental health of the students. In far too many instances those designated as counselors are too busy creating class schedules, coordinating testing, and serving as college admissions advisors than actually working with the mental issues of students in conjunction with their parents and teachers. In so many cases teachers are the first to notice warning signs and these should be taken seriously. The counselors should be ready to investigate and draw up plans for addressing concerns. If a student has a history of behavioral problems the counselors should be involved in all discussions of what to do. No student should just be expelled without being also sent to therapy as an additional requirement. If indications of violence are present this may even necessitate informing law enforcement. Under no circumstances should this process be so hidden from view that the individual has the freedom to purchase guns and ammunition.

We do not allow anyone under the age of twenty one to purchase alcohol and yet we allow teenagers as young as sixteen to buy certain weapons as long as they pass a background check that most likely does not include an accounting of their emotional difficulties at home or school. This needs to be remedied immediately and parents who circumvent this law by encouraging their knowingly disturbed children to have weapons should be held accountable for such egregious transgressions. When a parent is worrying about how a child is acting to the point of calling police or seeking professional care for them, it should be apparent that giving access to guns is the last thing that should happen. Even the most stable of youngsters should be supervised and limited in their contact with weapons.

There are common sense laws that we might pass with regard to types of weapons and ammunition clips that should be allowed as well. Nobody other than law enforcement officers and the military needs an arsenal nor do they require weapons that fire rapidly. Furthermore we need to make it more difficult to purchase weapons without some form of training and a more in depth background check. We require anyone driving an automobile to receive driver’s training and pass a test in order to earn a license. That license has to be renewed periodically as well. Perhaps it is time to initiate such a program for guns. Nobody should be able to legally purchase a gun without qualifying for a license after fulfilling age, training,  mental health and testing requirements. 

I am no fool. I understand that if someone wants to kill others that person will find a way. I also know that there will always be an underground community willing to provide guns and ammunition illegally to those who can’t get what they need within the law. No plan will ever be one hundred percent perfect. Nonetheless such arguments are not reason enough to do nothing at all. We craft many laws to make untenable situations better all of the time, and yet when it comes to issues such as mass shootings we wring our hands as though frozen in fear that anything we choose to do will be so flawed that it is better to do nothing at all.

As I cry for the lost souls and the people who loved them I worry that we will just keep kicking the can down the road and responding to our fears by arming more and more people. I shutter as I listen to the snarky comments being hurled back and forth from the differing points of view that do little to instill calm and reason. I wonder when we will come to our senses all around. Surely we can get past our differences and at least try to make things better. How many more need to die before we act? Who will hear our cries and step up to lead us?