Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lady in the Window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Girl

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I have the most amazing friends! Their posts on Facebook invariably make my day. They seem to have a direct view into my heart and the things that matter to me. I suppose that we are friends because our spirits are kindred in one way or another and they often humble me with their wit and wisdom. There are so many days when they target the very concerns that are consuming my heart without ever realizing that they have hit such a tender target. A few mornings ago I shared several of the memes and stories that they posted because they were exactly what I needed in that moment.

Among them was a heartfelt admission from one of my former students, a young woman who in many ways had been a kind of “golden girl” in her class. I met her when she was a freshman in high school and was immediately taken by her obvious charisma. She was beautiful then and had become even more so in the ensuing years as maturity gave her a kind of polish. Intellectually she was outstanding in every sense. Her academic acumen was sharp and I saw her as a deeply gifted and talented individual. While her forte was writing, she was nonetheless one of the best in virtually every subject, easily rising to the top levels among her peers. Amazingly she was also a natural born leader who had the ability of assessing any situation and taking charge with a kind of ease. As if all of that were not enough, she was incredibly kind and compassionate, a trait that did not escape the notice of both her teachers and her classmates.

This magnificent person became a student at the University of Texas where she struggled a bit to find herself. Eventually she came back home to Houston and spent some time reassessing who and what she wanted to be in her life. She worked to put herself through college at the University of Houston and in the process developed managerial skills from her jobs. After earning her degree the KIPP Charter schools hired her to work in development. She brought so much heart and understanding of the organization and its goals that she has risen rather rapidly though the ranks. Her ascendancy does not surprise me at all because she is one of those rockstar individuals who consistently shines even in a crowd.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting this young woman for dinner. In a turn that speaks to her thoughtfulness she presented me with a replica World Series ring from one of the Houston Astro’s game that she had attended. She had noticed that I did not have one and that I had expressed my desire to get one from a silly post that I had placed on Facebook. While everyone else ignored my audacious request, she had taken it to heart thus proving to me what I already knew about her. She is the whole package, a woman with enormous gifts and and even bigger heart.

I had thought that nothing about this woman would amaze me because I deeply understood her talents and her drive. One morning when I was reading the offerings on my Facebook newsfeed I found the following post from her:

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, but haven’t because I’ve never been one to put my business, good or bad, on social media. But I want to share this because I have come to terms with it. I have suffered from depression, I can’t tell you when it started, but I do know it went unspoken for longer than it should have. I thought that what I was feeling was normal, that the thoughts I had were normal. It wasn’t until I opened up to a friend about what I felt and what I thought that I realized how wrong I was. I was urged to talk, to seek help so I did. I started taking anti-depressants and sleep medication. A year and half later, things are better… most of the time. What people need to understand about depression is that it doesn’t have “a look”, you can’t always tell when someone is dealing with depression. Most of us live with it and are trying our best to get through it, we have good days. But some days are worse than others, and it’s more than just being sad and no we can’t just “snap out of it.” Yes I tried exercise, I tried meditation, I tried talking, I tried everything I could think of and some of it helped. At the end of the day I have accepted that this will come and go, that I needed to take the good days as wins and know that bad days will pass. I may not be the best at dealing with this, but I am dealing with it and I’m here for anyone who has questions, who needs someone to talk to or who just needs someone to listen.

I was literally overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude upon reading this post. In one moment she had proven herself to be even more remarkable than even I, one of her most ardent admirers, had ever dreamed. I fully understood how much courage it had taken for her to expose herself to potential criticism for I have witnessed so much ignorance about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses in my own efforts to educate the public. In a single paragraph my lovely student perfectly described what life is like for those afflicted with diseases that invade the mind. I am over the moon in awe of her, and I have shared her words with others whom I know who have also walked in the shadows and confusion and loneliness of depression. Her beautiful description of her journey to health has already helped people that she does not even know to face their own battles.

We often see individuals who appear to be as perfect as anyone might be without realizing the challenges that they actually face. The beauty of my student and now adult friend is that she understood how much good would come from admitting to the struggle that she has endured. I feel that I am now one of her pupils learning what true determination and strength actually is. I am so grateful to know her. She is even more remarkable than I dreamed.

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.

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.