The Power of Truth

lies

I was nineteen years old the first time my mother had a mental breakdown that rendered her unable to cope with the demands of caring for herself or my brothers. She took to her bed filled with paranoid anxieties, not even willing to run her air conditioner in the heat of July in Houston, Texas lest some intrigues find a way into her home. She drew her drapes and sat in the darkness imagining dire scenarios. Her fears became more and more frightening as I visited her each day hoping against all hope that she might experience a spontaneous recovery and become her old self once again. As her situation became more and more uncertain I understood that I would have to take charge of finding care for her, even though I still thought of myself as an insecure child.

My father had been dead for eleven years by then and the other adults in my life were as confounded by my mother’s sudden turn into depression and then mania as I was. Help was difficult to find. Not even the pastor of our church was willing to offer counsel as he admitted that he had a difficult time dealing with such situations. I felt abandoned in my hour of need and forced to rely on my own wits and the wisdom and kindness of strangers.

Our long time family physician advised me to find psychiatric care for my mother, an almost unheard of route in 1969. Mental illness was still a topic confined to whispers behind closed doors which was no doubt the reason why none of my elders felt comfortable discussing my mother’s sudden downward turn. I groped in the dark hoping that I would do the right thing for my mother. I found a doctor with a seemingly good reputation and crossed my fingers.

Few things went we’ll during that first battle to restore my mother’s mental health. The doctor was patronizing toward me, treating me like an ignorant child and revealing little about my mom’s prognosis as she appeared to be getting better with each passing day. I had to simply accept that our family was on the right path and that my mother would soon be her amazing self again. When I heard the words,”Your mother is cured.” I eagerly believed them and went about the business of living a routine life once again.

I kept the secret of my mother’s illness closed up in my heart. Few people who knew me, including members of my extended family, knew of her illness and I was more than happy to keep it that way. Mental illness was a conversation killer and something that felt somehow shameful as though it indicated a weakness in our family that must never  be mentioned by any of us. I clung to the hope that my mama’s mind would never again be as diseased as it had been during that horrific time even as I saw signs that she was somehow different from the tower of strength who had guided me into my adult years.

Within a year or two it became apparent that my mother was descending into madness once again. By that time my own confidence had grown and I did a great deal of research before finding her a doctor who was more open and sympathetic to her needs. It was a blow to have to begin anew but things turned out well once again. In spite of the recurrence of her illness I continued to rather naively tell myself that she would somehow beat this monster that invaded her thoughts and behavior while I also continued to hide the reality of our family’s struggles from all of my friends and coworkers.

Such was the continuing routine year after after. My mother would cycle in and out of psychotic moments and I would get her the medical interventions that she required then we would both act as though nothing was essentially wrong. Relapse after relapse occurred until we both became quite good at seemingly hiding our secret. I pretended as much as my mother did that all was well until it wasn’t.

During a particularly devastating occurrence of yet another breakdown of my mother’s mind I found myself desperately needing to share the burden of caring for her. For the first time I spoke openly to colleagues at work and discussed the toll that being her caretaker had imposed on me. I felt utterly selfish for admitting that I was exhausted. I thought of myself as an utter failure and a fraud. It was only in my moment of honesty that I found the comfort that I had needed for so long. I also became better at helping my mother. By allowing the light of day to illuminate the problem everything became easier. I learned that I was not alone in my concerns and sorrows and that people were far more understanding than I had been willing to believe.

I found a great doctor for my mom who finally provided me with the frankness that I needed to hear. He had a diagnosis for her recurring bouts of depression and mania, bipolar disorder. He explained to both me and my mother that her illness was chronic but with regular care it need not be as debilitating as it had been. He forced us to face all of the demons that had haunted us and to accept that mental illness need not be hidden from view anymore than one might pretend that a heart attack was something about which to be ashamed. He provided us with an epiphany that free us from the self imposed prison that we had build around our worries.

From that point forward I became a vocal advocate for those with mental illness and their families. I felt compelled to speak about the journey that our family had travelled and to share the struggles that had threatened to break us. While there were still those who shied away from my openness most people embraced my honesty and supported my family as we continued to deal with my mother’s lifelong illness.

Mental illness is a disease just as surely as diabetes is. There are treatments for such conditions that help individuals to lead better lives. The more we discuss mental heath the more likely it will be that those afflicted with disorders will find hope and perhaps even a bonafide cure one day. I learned that we must have conversations about such things. It is the only way to erase the stigmas that make such illnesses somehow seem unmentionable. I no longer lie to myself or anyone else. My mother was a remarkable woman who also happened to have bipolar disorder. She was so much more than her illness. 

Keep On Keeping On

U-Turn section

When we are young we tend to be impatient. We see life as a sprint rather than a marathon. Every mistake we make feels like the end of possibilities. We fret over our futures and worry that our lives are over before we even get started. I recall thinking that I would never experience any of the things that I dreamed of doing. I was in a hurry, and life rarely works that way. Over the decades I’ve learned that there are some things that we can’t rush, but they happen all in good time.

When I graduated from high school I enrolled in college but I honestly felt totally confused about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I found love with the man who is now my husband, and nothing mattered more to me at the time. So many young men that I knew were being drafted into the army and shipping off to Vietnam where some of them died or were severely wounded. The nation was in a state of upheaval far worse than anything we are now experiencing. Somehow I lost my way and when the chance arose to marry the one person who made me feel good every minute that I was with him I leaped at the opportunity.

I was determined to continue my education even as an incredibly young married woman and for two semesters after my wedding I was as good as my word. Then my world came crashing down around me when my mother’s mental illness advanced to a stage that was more than she was able to bear. I became her lifelong caretaker even as I had little idea of what to do or how long this journey was going to take. I was playing each moment by ear and hoping for the best. On top of everything else I suddenly found that I was pregnant with my first child. Nonetheless I kept taking classes in spite of the reality that none of them felt right for me.

My mother’s battle with mental illness would recur again and again and I would need to focus my attention on her whenever she was especially sick. I decided to take a sabbatical from my university studies after my first child was born. I vowed to return to complete a degree of some kind but for the moment I had my hands full. Things became more complicated when a second daughter was born and my mom’s illness became a constant in our lives. My husband also developed a life threatening disease when we were in our mid twenties that required many months of hospitalization and chemotherapy. Any thoughts of college that I may have had were set aside as I buckled down to take care of my mom, my children and my husband. Somehow the years slipped by and any promise of graduating from college seemed remote so I found little jobs here and there teaching preschool or working as the Director of Religious Education at my church. I had turned thirty before I once again became determined to finish my studies.

I brought a great deal of wisdom and experience to my second foray into education. I found that I enjoyed my classes and gave extra effort to them out of joy for learning. I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life and that certainty gave meaning and purpose to each of the courses that I took. Before long I had earned my degree in education and began teaching in earnest. I would spend the rest of my working days with children and teens. I found that I truly enjoyed my job and the real life experiences that I had encountered were as important in preparing me as my studies had been.

I earned a high level of satisfaction and success in my career. By the time I retired I had taught thousands of students in grades from preschool to middle school to high school to college. I had been an administrator and a mentor to teachers. I felt fulfilled and happy. Since my last full time job I have tutored students and taught children who are being homeschooled. I write every single day as well which was a secret dream that I had long held.

I like to tell my story to young people because I think that I am a living example of the adage that it is never too late to be the person one wants to be. I was thirty two when I earned by degree. I was in my forties when I received a masters degree. I have been learning and working hard for all of my life. I have been willing to think out of the box and try things that had never occurred to me to do. I have never given up on myself, and even when times were tough I believed that brighter days were most assuredly ahead.

Sometimes it takes a bit of sacrifice to get where we want to be in life. We may not get there in the normal ways. Our paths may be rugged and difficult to endure, but with determination we can and will overcome the obstacles that seem to stalk us. I was unable to control all of the situations that overtook my life but I could take one or two classes at a time each and every semester until I finally walked across the stage for my diploma.

I have genuinely had it all, and so can almost everyone. Where there is a will to accomplish something there is always a way. I never belonged to a sorority or lived on campus at a university, but I still made friends in my classes. I had to forgo vacations and all sorts of luxuries for years, but eventually I was doing well enough to treat myself. I had a grand purpose in caring for my family, and I’d like to think that I inspired my daughters to live their lives to the fullest. I’ve tried to help my students also understand that the problems that have daunted them are only temporary detours. If they just keep on keeping on they will emerge into the highway that leads them to their grandest dreams and a few surprises that are even better.

Put Out the Fire!

 

 

burning building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cry For Help

stars and clouds at nighttime
Photo by Arnie Chou on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Appointment

blue and silver stetoscope
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We never really know when something that we say or do will have a stunning effect on someone. I can think of instances when certain people briefly entered my life and left impressions so strong that I still think of them and feel thankful that my path crossed with theirs. In such moments it felt as though we had been meant to encounter one another for all time in a kind of spiritual appointment.

When I entered my sixties I had mostly been lucky enough to have little need of doctors, but I decided that it was time for me to have a better than usual checkup. I’d heard of an executive screening at Kelsey Seybold Clinic that included all kinds of tests and a conference with the doctor all within the span of a couple of hours. The appointment included breakfast after the required fasting and a personal conference with the doctor to discuss problems and further steps. It was a kind of concierge setting with no waiting and a very personal feeling.

I didn’t know any of the doctors at the clinic so I randomly chose a Dr. Dickerson and then jumped through each of the diagnostic hoops. When the time came for my diagnoses I met a man who exuded interest in my case, but admitted that he had almost nothing to discuss in our guaranteed time together because he had found nothing troubling about my health. He laughingly asked me if there was anything concerning me that I wanted to share with him. Thinking quickly I began to discuss my mother’s difficulties with bipolar disorder and the toll her illness had taken on her and on me in the forty years since she first showed symptoms of being mentally ill.

Our discussion began with generalizations but soon led to my full-blown admission of the struggles that had continually worried me. I spoke of the guilt that I often felt for having to be so aggressive in my mother’s care. I described the chasm that had developed between my mother and me because of the role reversal in which I so often had to become the adult. Not long into the conversation I realized that Dr. Dickerson had a crystal clear understanding of what was happening and how both my mother and I felt about it. He admitted that psychiatry was one of his areas of interest and continued to to probe my state of mind, sometimes helping me to fill in the blanks when I struggled to describe my frustrations. Ultimately I cried openly, letting out all of my fears and anger without filters. It was something that I had never before done.

Dr, Dickerson allowed our conference to continue for over an hour during which time he gave me a new and healthy perspective regarding my role as a caretaker for my mother. He suggested that I use my experiences to help others in similar situations. He believed that my teaching skills and my love of writing might gain even more purpose if I were to honestly describe the journey of our family and the love that had glued us together even in the most desperate times. He asked me to focus more on my own compassion and strength rather than on the mistakes I felt I often made, and his parting prescription was that I write a book about what our family had learned about mental illness.

I have written that book which still languishes because of fears that I have of hurting someone who may misunderstand my message. I’ve had to think about that conference with Dr. Dickerson again and again because his words indeed made me feel healthy and brave. His name is included in my dedication because I don’t believe that I would have had the courage to put my feelings and my history into words without him. As I do my best to finally go public with my story I also cling to the advice that he so wisely gave me on that fateful day. When my story eventually sees the light of day it will be in great part because of the encouragement that I received from Dr. Dickerson.

I never had the privilege of returning to see Dr. Dickerson again. Changes in insurance and the policies at Kelsey Seybold Clinic made that impossible. Nonetheless I have always believed that somehow he and I were fated to meet if only that one time. Never before or since had anyone tapped so clearly into the turmoil that raged inside my head over the uncertainty that I had always felt regarding the role I played in getting psychiatric help for my mother. I had the support of very close individuals but I still constantly questioned myself and worried that I was not doing enough or even perhaps doing too much. Dr. Dickerson cleared the demons from my head and demonstrated kindness at a time when I surely needed it.

It’s amazing how such chance encounters happen. They always feel planned even as they are serendipitous. It is as though the heavens themselves conspired to create the intersection that made the powerful moments occur. There is a miraculous feeling to them, an other worldly aspect that can’t be explained. They are beautiful and memorable, but often fleeting, a single moment in time that provides us with whatever it is that we truly need.

I know that somehow I was supposed to meet Dr. Dickerson and that I was deigned to heed his words. I will always be thankful for my encounter with him as well as other times when I suddenly found myself in the right place at exactly the right time. Those appointments seemed random, but I believe that they had been made before I even knew that I needed them. Miracles abound.