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.

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Honesty

deep-sorrowI do my best to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, particularly in public. I often write about how to enjoy the simple aspects of existence and speak of the positive effect that my faith has on me. Recently my husband had a stroke that has profoundly changed our lives. He has a seventy percent blockage in his brain that is not treatable, so the possibility of his having another stroke is strong. In his first foray he was lucky enough to be in the company of our entire family and was near a great hospital. There were no residual effects of the attack, so now he is driving again and performing most of the tasks that he did before the incident. Still, his doctor has warned us that the possibility of a second stroke in the ninety days after the first one is very high. All in all this news has left both of us floundering, but determined to do whatever it takes to keep him healthy.

With the support and love of friends and family we are attempting to carry on and enjoy each moment of each day with a new appreciation. I am not one to surrender to challenges and so the fighter in me has come to the fore. So many people have mentioned how wonderful and inspiring I appear to be. This worries me just a bit because I imagine that other folks who are also struggling with horrific situations may misunderstand my strength and wonder why they don’t seem to be able to muster the courage and hopefulness that I demonstrate. I suspect that in my quest to never surrender to the dark feelings that creep into my mind, I may have inadvertently presented a picture of myself that is not complete. Because I strive to be honest and to help those who are really hurting I think that it is important for me to unveil some of the angst and horror that has stalked me since the day that I saw my husband lying helplessly on the floor.

I’m not nearly as brave as I sometimes appear to be. I’m about as human as they come and as such I have been shaken to the very depths of my soul. There have been moments when I had never ending conversations with God in which I was generally begging Him to lift the burdens from my shoulders. Eventually those prayers became less and less demanding and finally led me to ask for the strength to do whatever I need to do. First, however, I had to rage at the heavens. Thankfully I believe that God is quite understanding about our weaknesses. Before I was able to hand myself back over to Him I went through a very dark period of doubt and fear. It is what most of us do. It is part of our makeup to question and falter. He waits patiently for us to trust Him once again.

I have spent quite a bit of time inside my closet feeling very sorry for myself as I wailed in grief for all that I thought that I had lost. My confidence was shaken. My plans were dashed. I was afraid and angry and confused. I felt as though I would not be able to take another breath. I also felt guilty for being so selfish at a time when my husband needed me so. I chided myself for even considering my own feelings. It took me quite a long time to sort things out in my mind and compose myself once again.

I have always been a control freak. I abhor situations that are uncertain. The specter of a future that I cannot plan is unnerving and for a time it paralyzed me. I thought of my life as being over in a sense. I felt that the joy that I had shared with my husband in our travels would be a thing of the past. I imagined us living in a chronic state of panic. I was intensely jealous of family and friends who had the luxury of continuing their lives as though nothing had happened. I felt very alone and vulnerable.

I knew that it would be impossible to continue along such a path of despair. I slowly began to use my talents and resources to regain a semblance of control over our lives. I know that I can’t repair the occlusion in my husband’s brain, but I am able to create a diet that will help him to lose weight and keep his blood pressure low. I have the power to support him as he takes his medications and to keep our home as happy as possible. I have had to remind myself of my own belief that the best moments in life are actually the simple pleasures that come our way. I have begun to rejoice over dinners in our backyard, times with family, pleasant moments with friends. I try to find something upbeat about each day and mostly I have learned to express the loving feelings that I have for people as soon as I experience them.

One thing I know for sure is how very much I love my husband. I feel almost as though we are dating again. I like holding his hand and smiling at him. I find that spending time with him is what is most important  right now, no matter where we go or what we do. It’s funny how just sharing a joke or walking together makes both of us incredibly happy. A trip to Walmart can be as much fun as an extravagant trip.

I count my blessings literally every second now. I try not to let the inevitable irritations that come my way bother me, but now and again I lose my cool. I still find myself worrying more than I should but I’ve learned to be kind to myself. I am far more conscious of other people and my empathy for their suffering has increased a hundredfold. I spend my time controlling what I can and letting go of the rest. For now I need so little. All of the things that I dreamed of one day owning seem rather inconsequential. On some days I feel as though I am floating aimlessly in shark infested waters, and I try not to be fearful. A bit of bad news here and there has the power of sending me back to my closet to cry, but I know now that I will somehow somewhere find the strength to come back out and face the demons that stalk me.

I am no better nor any stronger than anyone else. I make the same mistakes and have the same questions that have plagued humans for eternity. I try to think less of myself and more about others. I rein in my tendencies to overthink the future. Right now I am fragile but I am also strong. Thus is the irony of the human spirit.

I appreciate the compliments that my friends shower upon me. They really do help me to keep going. The people who truly care about me have been indispensable. They have encouraged me and helped me to understand that we are never as alone as we might imagine. There is much goodness in the world if only we ask. Sometimes we need that helping hand and most people are only too willing to extend it. We just have to be willing to admit that none of us are capable of being perennial towers of strength.

I am fine for now, but I am quite certain that something will come along to shake my resolve once again,. I will try to remember that it is okay to lose one’s way from time to time. The important thing is to face the emotions that work to bring us down. In admitting our weaknesses we actually become stronger, and we learn how to overcome the feelings that are holding us back from being our best selves. As for me, I am choosing to find the beauty in my new situation and to grab whatever joy I might find. Time slips by far too quickly to spend it in a state of dread or pessimism, but we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we temporarily fall victim to an horrific case of the blues. So long as we do our best to cope with whatever situation we are facing, we will make it again and again.

When Children Lose Hope

Sad ChildA recent study reported that for the first time ever more middle school students are dying from suicide than from car crashes. Not only that, but the number of suicides among children as young as eight, nine or ten years old is also increasing. Researchers are only guessing as to why so many of our children and teenagers are ending their lives in such record numbers. The trend has become an epidemic that is rarely mentioned and far too many parents are unaware of the signs that there is trouble.

There are a number of possibilities suggested as to why suicide has become such a problem. Young people today increasingly see the world as being a dangerous and violent place. News stories often make them feel as though they are living under constant threat of harm. In addition there has been a breakdown of healthy relationships in many families leading children to feel insecure and sometimes even unloved. Ours is a fast paced world that stresses hard work and excellence. Some kids feel unrelenting pressures to excel in every aspect of their lives. Television and movies all too often depict suicide as a good way to end problems. Of course there is also the specter of social media which sometimes serves as a catalyst for bullying and the creation of unrealistic expectations of beauty, luxury and unending happiness. There is also a problem with adults, particularly parents failing to acknowledge the signs of depression and its power to lead their children to suicide.

There have always been young people who decided to take their lives, but never in the numbers that are being recorded today. When I was young virtually everyone sat down together with members of the family to share dinner. We took that opportunity to talk about the days’ events and to reinforce the idea that we cared for one another. All too often today the tradition of gathering around the table has been replaced with meals quickly consumed in front of the television or on the go. Members of the family are often moving in so many different directions that opportunities to actually talk with one another are brief or rare, especially once children become teenagers.

Latch key kids are abundant and they spend their afternoons unsupervised. They may become isolated by hours of playing video games or may even find inappropriate television programs to watch. They spend hours texting friends with their parents rarely being privy to what kind of messages are being exchanged. They may be engaged in dangerous situations for which they do not have the maturity to react in a healthy manner. In a sense they often lead secret and disturbing lives apart from their parents without anyone knowing the extent of the treacherous paths down which they are travelling.

There are ways that adults should more closely monitor their children rather than just assuming that all is well. When my own daughters were teenagers a very good friend advised me to find out as much about what they were doing as possible. I did so in both overt and covert ways. I talked with my girls constantly and observed their behaviors, watching for even subtle changes. I also listened to their friends and the parents of their friends to find out more information about their habits. I enlisted the help of an army of caring people to make sure that all was well. Even then I missed cues now and again.

My youngest daughter suffers from depression just as my mother did. She began to exhibit more and more isolated behavior and seemed to be in a continual state of tears when she was in high school. I remember the night when I found her sitting in the dark in her bedroom rocking back and forth while crying. I sat on the floor with her and held her in my arms as though she was a toddler, coaxing her to tell me about her feelings and what was driving them until she finally admitted that she felt lost and confused. I made an appointment for her to see a doctor the next day and began to engage in more and more frank conversations with her. She made it past that valley of despair, but she often told me that ultimately it was her profound belief in God and the sanctity of life that had prevented her from harming herself. Ironically my mother had often told me the same thing about her own moments of mental distress. Needless to say I rejoiced in knowing that by providing my child with a religious foundation I may have saved her life.

If parents see dramatic changes in their children it is dangerous to simply assume that the new behaviors are hormonal or typical. Warning signs come in the form of falling grades, difficulties sleeping, headaches or other physical manifestations. Children who lose interest in hobbies or friends are sending signals that something is very wrong. Changes in personality are another clue. Frequent tears, outbursts of anger, long periods of isolation inside a darkened room may all be pointing to problems that must be addressed. While teenagers are infamous for their constant texting, if this habit also appears to be associated with aggression or a lack of self esteem there may be a need for getting to the bottom of what kind of information is being exchanged.

We’ve always had bullies but never to the twenty four seven extent that some kids now endure. Social media all too often becomes a minefield for attacking youngsters. Sometimes those participating in the emotional assaults don’t even know the people that they are intimidating. For them it is just a sick game, but for the teenager who is the butt of their commentaries it can become unbearable. There is nowhere to hide, no way to stop the misery. They all too often hide what is happening out of a feeling of shame. Being so alone bears heavily on them. They need help but don’t know how to find it. It is up to adults to be conscious of such situations and work to assist the victims in retrieving their sense of security and self respect.

It’s become popular for some adults to refer to youth who struggle to adjust to the many challenges that they face as “snowflakes” as though they are simply so delicate that they cannot adjust to the realities of life. This is akin to the people who would urge my mother to get control of herself when she was in the midst of a psychotic episode as part of her bipolar disorder. At the time the chemistry of her brain was so askew that she did not possess the power to stop the madness that engulfed her. She needed the help of caring family members, friends and medical professionals to get her life back on track. The lack of understanding that she continually faced made her challenges even more difficult than they needed to be. Such it is for youngsters who are in crisis. Shaming them for falling victim to depression so debilitating that they have suicidal thoughts is not an answer. Instead we all must be vigilant in assisting anyone whose ideation becomes dark and worrisome.

Teachers are often the first to notice problems with a young person. Instead of ignoring such concerns it is paramount that they contact the school counselor, the nurse, the parents or all of the above. Sometimes kids are so good at hiding their pain that their families are the last to know that there are difficulties. Honest conversations have to take place, always punctuated with love and concern. At the same time we should teach our kids to be good friends who are willing to let us know if someone is struggling more than normal. We must then either contact the school or the parents to alert them to what is happening. Those are difficult conversations, but they may save lives. 

Rescuing our children from thoughts of suicide should be of paramount concern to all of us. We need to spend more time talking with them and helping them to feel safe in confessing their problems. We need to watch for the warning signs and take aggressive and loving action before the worst happens. It is up to all of us to bring down the distressing suicide statistics among the youngest in our society. We need to begin some difficult discussions with ourselves, each other and our children. Nothing else that we do is more important. 

Real Life

Yoda-peace_670I read the following words on Facebook the other day, “No matter how you feel–get up, dress up, show up and never give up.”

I actually like the idea behind that statement, and it’s a philosophy that I have followed for most of my life. I suspect that most people do the same. We muddle through even when times get really hard. We paste those faux smiles on our faces, gulp down enough caffeine to keep us awake and slog through whatever mess is doing its best to hold us back. Somehow though I suspect that there are unfortunate souls among us who simply can’t push on no matter how much they wish to do so. For reasons of physical or mental illnesses they reach a point at which keeping calm and carrying on is absolutely impossible. They are trapped inside circumstances that they did not ever wish to endure, and I wonder how platitudes such as the one above that actually inspires me must sound to them.

It’s rather easy for most of us to adjust our attitudes, but when someone’s brain is chemically imbalanced it can be akin to climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks. Depression, bipolar disorder and anxieties cripple those afflicted with such diseases just as strokes, heart disease and other serious physical ailments all too often sideline individuals who might once have been warriors of activity and optimism. In our eagerness to keep everyone feeling as happy and productive as possible we sometimes forget to note that courage isn’t always measured by getting up, dressing up and showing up.

Some of the bravest people that I have known are those who deal with chronic illnesses, either physical or mental. They often become homebound from time to time when their symptoms overwhelm their bodies or their minds. They certainly never want to just give up but they are often stymied by the realities that they must face. It’s rather natural for them to want to rage at the unfairness of their situations, but as a society we tend to prefer for them to make the rest of us feel good by pretending that everything is just fine. We generally don’t like hearing bad news or the honest voices of those who are suffering. We discourage discourse that accurately describes the truth. Instead we elevate those who appear to overcome adversity without ever uttering a single angry or negative thought, never considering that they may need to vent the feelings that are in reality bearing down on them.

I wonder how many people break apart simply because they are afraid that admitting their fears and their anger will alienate everyone else. Our culture rewards stoics and those who manage to maintain the course. We deem Yoda to be a font of wisdom because he tells us that fear leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. He makes it sound easy to have better lives simply by eliminating our fears, but how many times have we been shocked to learn of someone who was crushed under the weight of pretending that everything was fine? How often do we avoid an individual who attempts to tell us about the hurt and pain? Why do we recoil so whenever someone brings up delicate truths?

I thank God every single day that I awake and realize that my body and my mind are sound enough that I have the capacity to face whatever challenges come my way. I have learned not to be smug about my ability to be strong in the face of hardships because I have realized that at least for now I am enjoying a great gift. I have seen what it was like for friends and family members who did not have the luxury of being able to push themselves as their bodies or their minds shut down leaving them struggling to face the day. I remember the rage of a friend who was dying at a young age. She did not want to pretend that she was content to accept her lot. She unburdened her heart to me and only smiled as though she was at peace when strangers came looking for strength from her. She resented that she so often had to hide her tears and be the adult in the room. She needed to be honest so that she might ultimately endure her fate, but so often she was the one who was comforting everybody else. They thought that she was such a beautiful soul and in fact she was, but she so wanted to be able to speak of the pain that filled her thoughts.

My mother in turn grew weary of always wearing a mask when her mind seemed almost to take control over her free will. She spoke of the terror of hearing herself say things that she did not want to say that seemed to be coming from voices inside of her brain that had taken control of who she would be. When her mental illness became the most unbearable she hid behind drawn drapes fearing that someone might come to her door and see her in her weakened state. She too was furiously enraged over her illness which she fought with her very being. Over and over again she rose from the ashes of defeat but always with fewer and fewer friends willing to walk with her when she was the most ill. Before long my once vivacious and stalwart mother who had been the life of so many parties found herself alone save for family because the symptoms of her illness were too difficult for people to observe.

We all need to learn how to stand by the people that we know who are suffering and unable for whatever reason to pretend that all is well. We should be ready to offer understanding and a willingness to accept them even when they feel as though they just want to surrender to the negativity that is stalking them. We should all learn how to just listen and not be so quick to force platitudes on them. Our role should be to assure them that we will not abandon them and that our love for them will never waver. They need to know that it is safe to be exactly the person that they need to be. Real life is not always pretty and that is okay.

The Lights

2There are so many houses, so many people. I pass them as I go about my daily routines. I see them as I travel from one town to another. Some are so lovely and inviting, others not so much. I wonder who inhabits them and try to imagine what life is like for them. Of course I will never really know the truth of what goes on inside those walls. Experience has taught me that appearances do not always define reality, and yet I find myself imagining what is happening in those places over and over again.

We are a world of millions and millions of people. We have hearts and brains and blood coursing through our veins. We need food and water and love to thrive. We are so much alike, and yet we have our differences. What we see and hear in our homes influences us for the good or the bad. From the time that we are children we either feel safe and secure or frightened and bewildered. Not all homes are castles and not all castles are homes.

I remember a time when a woman living in River Oaks shot and killed her well known and renowned husband. Few who were familiar with the couple had any idea that she was living in a state of fear from the continuous abuse that she was enduring at his hands. Instead her life appeared to be ideal, the kind of existence that most of us dream of experiencing. It was shocking to learn the dark details of the happenings inside what should have been a haven. Even her closest friends were appalled when they heard her testimony at trial. I remember thinking that I might have been envious of her lifestyle of the rich and famous had she not ultimately shed light on the truth with her act of desperation.

I often ponder a visit to a woman that my grandmother Minnie wanted me to meet when I was only six years old. As we drove to the lady’s house Grandma did her best to prepare me for what I might encounter. Her words were insufficient in describing the abject poverty in which the woman lived. The house was what might politely be called a hovel. It literally appeared to be falling down around the family that resided within. The lady herself had the physical appearance of someone worn down by life’s continuous challenges, and yet when she smiled she had the face of a beautiful angel. She was transformed as she spoke so sweetly of her wonderful children and the love that she shared with them was apparent as she proudly introduced each of them and bragged on their abilities. After spending an afternoon with her I realized that she was a truly happy, optimistic and faith filled woman in spite of her circumstances, and my grandmother later told me that she thought that her friend was one of the grandest people that she had ever known.

We each approach the circumstances of our lives just a bit differently. So often our possessions or wealth have little bearing on how we will react to our daily trials and blessings. For some there is never enough, and so they stew in discontent regardless of how lucky they have been. For others little more is necessary to bring a sense of satisfaction than seeing the dawn of a new day. The happiest people are not those who pursue things, but those who embrace the simple act of living with an open and generous heart. It is not the dinner at a wonderful restaurant that brings us the most joy, but the sharing of that moment with people for whom we care. The food that sustains us best is love.

We are never in complete control of our lives. Things happen to us with or without our consent. A loved one dies. A flood destroys our worldly goods. We receive a devastating medical diagnosis. Someone we thought was a friend betrays us. Such things happen inevitably to everyone. It is in how we choose to address our realities that we become the true masters of our destinies. We each have the power to rise above the horrors that stalk us just as my grandmother’s friend seemed to have done.

We don’t have to be victims of circumstance wallowing in self pity. We can cry and rage just enough to vent the poisonous feelings that haunt us when things get bad. It is only natural to do so, but eventually we must show the strength that resides inside each and every one of us. It can be terrifying and lonely to do so, but in the end those who do truly find the happiness and contentment that we all seek. The light beaming from their homes comes not from incandescent bulbs but from the joy that resides in their souls.

Grit, determination, inventiveness, generosity, caring…these are characteristics that make a house a home for everyone who lives inside. When we see our role models striving day after day to make love the center of our personal universes we in turn learn how to deal positively with all of the difficulties that will most certainly befall us. When we only experience despair and hatefulness we often begin to emulate the traits of hopelessness that drive us into constant cycles of depression and loneliness. If we are fortunate we will encounter the hand up that we need to break the chains that have imprisoned us in our own minds. Luckily there are teachers, ministers and friends who often teach us how to be our better selves.

No life is ever a complete loss. Until the last breath is drawn everyone has the possibility of changing for the better. Jesus Himself taught us this wonderful truth as He was dying on the cross when the thief begged for and received God’s forgiveness.

I am one of the fortunate ones, but I have seen children enduring the ugly effects of tragically violent and loveless homes. I know from working with them that they can be saved, and I have time and again witnessed incredibly giving souls reaching out to the psychologically wounded and making a profound difference. I am always humbled when I witness such selfless acts of love, and I think of how wonderful it will be to have one more home glowing with the lights of optimism and hope simply because someone cared.

Just as my grandmother Minnie most likely expected I was changed by my encounter with her neighbor. It taught me not to judge a book by its cover and how to value the character of a person over possessions. I still treasure the memory of sitting next to Grandma after our visit and hearing the wisdom in her voice as she coached me on life. I suppose that she knew that there were many challenges ahead of me and she wanted me to realize that I would be able to endure almost anything as long as I remembered to draw on the gifts that reside in each of our beings. Now as I look back on the battles that I have won and even those that I have lost I think of the people who stood resolutely by my side and realize how wealthy I have been.

Be that life changing person for someone. Keep the lights of happiness burning brightly in as many homes as possible.