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.

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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?

Stayin Alive

article-2708593-04EAC45700000514-459_634x652-optimisedForty years ago the iconic movie Saturday Night Fever debuted and became not just a an instant hit, but a film classic. I was a twenty nine year old mom with two little girls and a sense that a lifetime of adventures lay ahead of me. I had matured beyond my years not just due to my parental responsibilities, but also because I had helped my mother through two difficult mental breakdowns and had watched helplessly as my husband endured chemotherapy to combat a life threatening disease. Still I was young at heart and ecstatic when my mother suggested that we go see the movie together. I knew that it was not the kind of fare that my husband would enjoy, so I was happy to have a companion with whom to share the enjoyment of escaping into a world of music and dance for a few hours.

Back then there were still several drive in movie venues in the Houston area and Mama thought that it would be fun to watch the flick in the comfort of her car. Just as she had done so many times when my brothers and I were children she created a bed for my girls in the back seat of her automobile and brought sandwiches, cold drinks and a huge bag of homemade popcorn for our dining pleasure. I loved that she was feeling so healthy that she was her old self, and I laugh now that it never occurred to either of us to consider that perhaps the content of the film might be a bit inappropriate for my underage children. We headed off with great anticipation, glad to be a group of girls out on the town.

As it happened we were all stunned by the movie. John Travolta amazed us with his dancing and the music from the Bee Gees and other disco groups of the era was incredible. We were even surprised by the actual quality of the story and the acting. My daughters who were then three and six years old never fell asleep, because they were as taken by the film as my mother and I were. I assumed that they were unable to understand the adult nuances of the plot and simply enjoyed the characters, the soundtrack and the display of talent. As for my mom and I, we were smitten and felt like a couple of giggly teenagers as we gushed about the film on our way home. Both of us had fallen for John Travolta in his white suit, and my mom who was a stunning dancer in her own right gave him a high grade for his artistry.

I suppose that I reverted to the silliness of a high school groupie when I recounted our evening to my husband. He sensed my excitement and because he has always been quite sensitive to my every need purchased several items related to the movie as Christmas gifts for me that year. Among them was the soundtrack album which I wore out with repeated playings. The girls and I danced our hearts out on many a day, pretending that we were boogying on a disco dance floor in a contest that we would surely win.

In addition to the music my man gave me the iconic poster of John Travolta dazzling the world in that gorgeous white suit in a dance pose that seemed to represent the disco era in all of its glory. I mounted the image inside my closet door and there it stood for decades making me smile every single time that I caught a glimpse of it. It made me love my husband even more because it was symbolic of his efforts to make me happy as much as possible. While I knew that he thought that my giddiness was silly, he enjoyed seeing me smile, and so he never once suggested that maybe it was time that I finally remove my remembrance of a movie that I truly loved.

When my man and I celebrated our anniversary the following year he even went so far as to present me with a lovely dress and a pair of shoes most suitable for a night at a discotheque, as well as a promise that he to take me dancing. This was the ultimate sacrifice on his part and a sign of his undying devotion to me, because everyone who has ever known him understands that he does not like to dance. I have often joked that he is almost perfect save for that one little glitch. The very idea that he was going to subject himself to a night of twirling me in rhythm to the music was stunning, but he indeed spent an entire evening making me incredibly happy as I imagined that he and I were the most striking couple on the floor. My purple dress and and new hairstyle were virtual clones of the outfit that Travolta’s partner wore in the film and my spouse was stunningly handsome. It was a night that I shall never forget.

Somehow the next forty years flew by. Drive in movies became as difficult to find as dinosaurs. My mom continued to endure peaks and valleys in her fight with mental illness. She and I and my daughters continued to dance to whatever the latest tunes happened to be. My husband reverted to his old ways and rarely tapped his feet again unless he heard the strains of a Michael Jackson tune. My children grew into lovely young women and there came a day when that old poster that still hung inside the closet had begun to dry rot. When I finally took it down it tore in so many places that I threw it away rather than attempting to salvage it. Nonetheless, I always remembered how much I had enjoyed Saturday Night Fever.

My youngest daughter laughs to think that my mother and I actually took her to see the movie when she was only three years old. It seems that she understood a great deal more than we had imagined, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed her in any way. Like me she recalls the dancing and the music so fondly and eventually she and I sat down with her daughter to relive the moment when we became so enchanted with the film long ago. We laughed at how we had missed the scene when John Travolta was preparing for his evening on the town. There he was in all of his glory blowing his hair dry while wearing nothing but a pair of black briefs. With the beauty of modern technology we were able to rewind the scene any time that we wished, and like adolescents we took full advantage of that feature while we laughed at our silliness and my granddaughter rolled her eyes.

Back in 1977, I had barely begun my lifetime of teaching. I had not even met so many of the people who would become my dear friends. I was exiting a dark and difficult time and had become far stronger than I had ever imagined I might be. My optimism was full blown in spite of the stops and starts that had changed the trajectory of my life. Saturday Night Fever gave me a moment when I did not need to feel so serious. It provided me with a memory of just how fun my mother actually was. It blunted that pain that I had so recently endured and helped me to realize that with a balance of work and play in my life I would be able to handle any challenge that came my way.

So much has changed in forty years but the essence of the human heart and its longings that the film portrayed so well is virtually the same. Each of us have dreams and experience love and joy along with tragedy. We find ways to heal and to move ever forward. If we can do so with a lilt in our steps and a little song inside our heads, we are all the better. It’s how we stay alive.

Propagate the Good

domestic-violence-recently spent a glorious weekend with relatives in Dallas. We had three days together and in between dinners, walks, movies, and a big party we talked about today’s problems. My niece commented that while the world sometimes appears to have gone crazy, most people are in fact very good. She suggested that the best way to make society better is for everyone who is decent to propagate the good. In other words, it is not enough just to quietly follow the golden rule, but it is necessary for each of us to spread goodness much like a bumble bee pollinates flowers. She insisted that we must be purposeful in our efforts to demonstrate all that is right and just.

There are many reasons why some people are angry and prone to negative behaviors. Some of them stem from evil, but others are simply the result of giving up on life. Recently a young man attempted to hang himself at the high school which serves the students from my neighborhood. It hit all of us hard to know that someone so very young had felt so hopeless that he was ready to end it all. I still don’t have any idea what exactly may have lead to his dramatic cry for help, but whatever it was must have been horrible in his mind. I can’t help but wonder if this incident might have been prevented if only the people around him had shown enough kindness to propagate the good. Perhaps he might never have reached such a point of desperation.

One of my high school friends posted a message that her granddaughter had written in response to this terrible tragedy. The young girl attends the school where this student had tried to kill himself. She hinted that he may have been a victim of bullying. She urged everyone to be kind, to watch their words, and to notice whenever someone is suffering. She suggested that each of us has a responsibility to speak up when we see cruelty and to assist anyone who appears to be suffering.

We tend to get very busy, so that we often purposely look the other way if we see someone being abused. It’s easier to just shrug and ignore such situations, but we never really know how a victim will react to the pain of being emotionally or physically tortured. Such individuals often need a hero, a person strong enough to stand up for them or at the very least comfort them. When we walk away from such situations the message that we send is that the world is an uncaring place.  Little wonder that so many people feel alone in their trouble and decide that it would be easier to stop the pain with death. How many times might such thoughts be changed by a bit of kindness?

Even as adults it is very difficult to stand up to bullies and the type of toxic individuals who berate and insult others. Those kinds of people are more often than not intimidating, and since so many people are unwilling to confront them doing so requires tremendous courage. When the obnoxious person is an elder or in a position of power it is even more troublesome to even think of standing up to them. They harm their victims with relative impunity and begin to believe that they are untouchable. Meanwhile the person who is the brunt of their bullying begins to feel that there is no means of relief.

Of late we’ve witnessed far too many instances of people unfairly exerting their power over others. In some cases the ugly behaviors are insults and in others they are actually physical attacks. We’ve learned that often such activities were generally known and tolerated by large groups of witnesses out of fear.  In spite of the fact that most of us believe that propagating the good means stepping up to the plate even when it is frightening to do so, we continue to be reluctant to take the initiative.

I heard of a young man who went to see a play that featured acting by some of his friends. His intent had been to demonstrate support for the cast but things took a bad turn. He and a group of classmates sat together at the performance and one of the group began to kibitz and joke about the play’s message. Soon enough they were all laughing inappropriately and angering members of the audience as well as the actors. The young man felt horrible about what was happening but rather than moving, asking his buddies to cease their rude behavior or at least sitting in silence he chose to go along with the antics. His apologies only came after the director expressed his anger. He had allowed himself to become involved in a situation that he felt was wrong, but he simply did not have the courage to do what was right. His was a case of allowing peer pressure to dictate his poor judgement.

Each of us has no doubt been guilty of such cowardly inaction. We really don’t want to get involved in something that might get messy. It’s easier to just ignore acts of ugliness. Few among us are able to honestly say that we have never left an individual to fend for him/herself in a bad situation, even understanding that our intersession might have ended the abuse.

I wonder how many times a suicide might have been stopped had someone been willing to defend a tortured soul, or at least to seek help for him/her. We know how harmful words and actions can be, and yet we are all too often seized with fear when faced with such realities. If such unwillingness to become involved were confined to the very young it might be understandable, but all too often even adults prefer to protect themselves, their relationships or their jobs rather than speaking the truth that might make a world of difference for someone who is being unfairly targeted with hatefulness.

There are indeed more good people than bad, but when the good people are silent we end up with innocents being loaded into boxcars that carry them to concentration camps. When we refuse to speak we may later find someone battered or even murdered. If the good people shout with a collective voice they will be heard just as surely as the world eventually listened to the words of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Goodness must be shared if it is to have the desired impact on the world.