Facing the Fears

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I’ve noticed a number of people being very honest about their anxieties with regard to Covid-19. I was raised to be stoic about such things. My mom never complained or showed her worries until she had a mental breakdown and then in a state of psychosis she could not stop talking about her fears. I suppose that it was that point in life when I realized that we should not have to keep our concerns to ourselves. Bearing the unbearable alone does not always lead to a situation as dramatic as my mom’s was, but it can have both physical and emotional consequences that sap the very energy out of a person. I think it is quite healthy of my friends to admit that they are worried and afraid. I admire them for asking for help in dealing with the losses and frustrations that they are feeling.

I’ve been rocking along being rather proud of myself for bearing up and adjusting to the temporary normal of Covid-19. I’ve kept myself busy, made sure that my husband’s recovery from recent surgery has been smooth and upbeat, created distance learning for my math students, checked on members of my family and circle of friends, kept a written record of this historical event, and generally rolled with the ever changing punches that we are experiencing. I had considered myself to be immune from crushing worries because I’ve handled many crises in my lifetime. So it was a wake up call when I had a dream a view nights ago that made me realize that I was a bit more concerned than I have been willing to admit.

My nightmare began in my old home on Anacortes Street. I was a younger version of myself and my two girls were still children. As I walked down the street to meet them at the bus stop after school I waved at my neighbor Betty Turner who was smiling at me from a lawn chair in her front yard. I told Betty I would be back in a few minutes and I would sit with her and have a little chat. The school bus pulled up just as I arrived at the corner and my daughters hopped off with their book bags and lunch boxes. I was happy to see them and I gave them both hugs before starting back home. That’s when the fun or, should I say, the horror began.

Somehow our straight and quick pathway had become blocked and we had to take an alternate route. At first I wasn’t worried because I knew the area well and there was more than one way to get back home. Unfortunately no matter what I tried we could not find a way to the safety of our house. In fact we were getting farther and farther away and I was doing my best not to frighten my children. Instead I attempted to turn our adventure into a game which worked for a time but eventually they grew weary and begged me to take them home so that they might rest and see their friends and enjoy some playtime.

I kept trying my best to protect them from the reality of our situation but it was beginning to feel hopeless. Our wandering even took us back to the old neighborhood where I grew up and when I searched there for someone to help I only found strangers who ignored me when I attempted to speak to them. I was exhausted and on the verge of hysteria when I awoke and realized that it was all just a dream, but it helped me to understand that I had been denying the impact that this pandemic was having on me and the people that I love.

I suppose that most of us are longing for the comfort of that yesterday before any of this happened. As a mom I still worry about my still grown and very capable daughters. I long to see them and hug them and protect them. It’s difficult for all of us to be so separated and to feel so helpless. I am a person who takes control of situations and suddenly much of that control is in the hands of others. For now I am mostly doing what I can from afar and not being the responsible person in the room makes me feel a bit lost.

My dream has helped me to visualize and vocalize my fears. I don’t intend to dwell on them because that is not my style, but by allowing myself to feel them I have become stronger in my resolve not to allow any of this to defeat me. I think that it is important for each of us to find that honest part of our minds and then deal with the demons that haunt us. It really is okay to long for the normal times and want to rewind to a happier moment. It’s normal to want to protect our children even if they are grown. It’s a very human thing to want to get back to a dear friend like Betty where we can just sit and feel ourselves returning to a sense of safety and contentment that feels threatened by the specter of Covid-19.

I think of myself as a superwoman and I know I have a backbone of steel, but I am in reality just as human as anyone. I believe that it will be our very humanity and empathy that gets us through this crazy time. I’m thankful for all those dear souls who have been courageous enough to admit their fears. They have helped me and others. If we are honest we all know that hearing someone voice the feelings that we have pent up inside assuages our own worries. There is nothing more normal than being a bit anxious right now. Once I admitted it to myself I knew that I would be okay. It’s time to keep calm and remember to practice self care.

And So I Worry

WorryI sit at home during this time of self isolation and I worry. Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not worry about myself. I will either get the virus or I will not. If I get it I will either survive or not. I am seventy one years old and my journey on this earth has been good. I feel very close to God and that belief brings me great comfort. My anxieties and concerns center on other people whose lives are being upended or may be upended by what is unfolding at warp speed. I am one of those individuals who wants our president to know that I am very scared of the repercussions of this pandemic and how they will affect the entire world, not just my little corner of it. I am most especially concerned for the young who stand to inherit a situation that will forever impact their lives in ways that few of us are even considering because nothing of this magnitude has ever before happened.

I am fearful for the medical community, people who understand what protocols they need to stay safe and keep their patients safe. They are on the front line and their pleas for our attention and help are real. They are not children crying wolf. They are highly educated, highly qualified individuals who are trained to stay calm. When they are afraid I know that the rest of us should also be afraid and that our job is to insist that immediate measures be taken to assist them in any way possible. If that means that we all stay in our homes avoiding contact with others, so be it. We need to listen to them, not a man whose claim to expertise in science and medicine is his relationship with a very bright uncle from M.I.T. The medical community tells us that this is serious and I believe them and so I worry about them.

I am anxious about the people who are already losing their jobs and their businesses. I know who they are and how vulnerable they are feeling. Nothing about their situation is typical. They have no guarantees that our economy will quickly return to a normal enough state to provide them with secure employment when all of this is over. My own city is the oil capital of the United States and that industry is collapsing almost as quickly as the virus is spreading Already there have been furloughs and layoffs. Sadly if the general outline of the Senate’s plan to stimulate the economy comes to pass many who have been most affected by economic loss will receive no relief even though they are the ones who need it the most. The proposed bill would only send checks to people at or below a certain income level based on 2018 tax returns. These people were working and doing well back then, but now they have no income and their retirement investments are in a shambles. Thus I am anxious for them.

I see a political game of back and forth insults playing out on social media even as we should be working together to achieve the common goal of defeating this virus. If there ever was a time when we should set our differences aside it should be now and yet I see so many instances of the quarreling only intensifying. Blame and finger pointing is on the rise as though it must surely be the fault of some nation other than our own or some group that does not believe in God or those who voted for a certain person in the last presidential election. The political paranoia and poison is operating at full tilt when we should instead be working together. Covid 19 is apolitical, a virus that randomly chooses its victims, and so I worry because I keep hearing accusations and excuses instead of a united front from those in charge of guiding us through this battle. I would be far more calm if the press conferences included members of both of our major political parties. I would be relieved to hear that plans were being made in a bipartisan way for the good of the country. I would feel less anxious if we were able to heal the wounds and divisions of our nation and the world even as we fight the virus. Since I don’t see as much of that as I think we need I am ill at ease.

The  millennials are more like those of us who are Baby Boomers than either demographic may think. We Boomers were a rebellious group that was often misunderstood by our elders. We looked honestly at the world as it was and were unafraid to point out its problems. We witnessed racism that made no sense and we stood up to our elders and spoke out against the ways things had always been done. We worried that the war in Vietnam was not being waged in an honest and legitimate manner and we voiced those concerns. Our parents and grandparents thought we were rude and too inexperienced to have valid points of view.  They disapproved of our audacity. So too are today’s young people taking note of things that bother them. Surely we should remember how demeaning it felt to have our concerns silenced when our intentions were so sincere. It’s time we listened to our young because they are about to step into an adult world that will be riddled with residual problems created by this pandemic. We are handing off immense challenges without acknowledging them and supporting them as much as we should. I worry about the future not because I don’t think they can handle it but because so many of us are not willing to consider that the millenials have a bigger stake in making things right than us older folk do. It would serve us all well to remember that aside from people like Benjamin Franklin most of the revolutionary men who forged the independence of this nation were very young.

I am an admitted worrier. I do not need anyone to tell me to set aside my worries and be happy. I am already happy, but I think about things and fret over solutions for problems. I do not need anybody to suggest that if I only trust in God all will be well. God and I have a beautiful relationship and I know that He/She does not play favorites nor smite people in spite. What I do believe is that God gave us wondrous minds and imaginations with which to tackle our challenges. I worry because we don’t always use that precious gift as well as we should. I worry because even in a pandemic we sometimes forget that the most important commandment of all is to love one another.

I hope that I am wrong in all of my fears. I pray that we will rise up and become better for all of the difficulties that lie before us. We may be in for a hard road ahead. We have everything we need to do well but I fear that we will be so busy chiding and advising anyone who does not think exactly as we do that we will miss opportunities to find the way forward without a world of pain…and so I worry. 

The Power of Truth

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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. 

Be A Weed

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I am constantly fighting weeds. My roses may droop and look as though they are ready to just give up and die during the heat of summer or the freezes of winter but somehow my weeds are always lush and ready to take on any challenge that I give them. I might pull them out by the roots and then treat my flowerbeds with a blanket of mulch but those pesky weeds find a way to come back again and again. I may cover them with thick black plastic but they live on. No matter what I try they are determined to rule the roost in my garden. I have a perennial battle in my attempts to keep them at bay because I am as willing to fight for what I really want as they are.

Life can be brutal. It is filled with one challenge after another. Just when we think that all is well problems sneak into our world that sometimes feel insurmountable. Our best laid plans fall apart. We find that we have as much control over the things happening to us as I do in preventing those weeds from ever again returning. It is inevitable that each of us will one day face difficulties that will try our patience and our will to fight for what we believe to be right.

I’ve had to walk through fire many times. I am not unique in that. I have watched people that I know seeming to have charmed lives only to eventually encounter grave tribulations that threaten to destroy all of the good that they have built. It takes courage for each of us to face the surprises that come our way. Often we have to be flexible and willing to change our plans just to keep moving forward. Sometimes the problems we face are so horrible and demanding that few would fault us if we simply gave up. It takes great strength to travel through a lifetime. Some people among us are like those weeds, unwilling to surrender, always coming back with vigor regardless of how much damage is done to them.

I have witnessed true survivors in my lifetime, people who were challenged by the most grave problems imaginable that they did not allow to defeat them. My grandparents are chief among those that I admire for their persistence, but of course my mother is the icon from whom I take great example. She seemed to have been stalked by tragedy for her entire life and yet she fought back with a fierceness worthy of Joan of Arc. She was unwilling to let her circumstance rule the trajectory of her life even as she fought her own mental illness which chronically returned again and again.

I know a woman who lost her father at a very young age just as I did. By the time she was fourteen she was running a household while her mother worked to keep the family afloat. She was driving a car and writing checks, purchasing groceries and watching over her brothers. She is kind and tough at one and the same time and even though her trials continue to follow her she keeps an optimistic faith in humankind and keeps moving forward knowing that she will no doubt have to climb over new barriers in her journey.

I know a young man who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Houston. He had few role models to inspire him but he somehow decided that he wanted to one day become an engineer. He ignored the temptations that were rampant in the world around him and worked hard toward achieving his goal. He struggled with the financing of a college education and went to great lengths to make unbelievable sacrifices just to keep taking classes. It took him longer than usual to earn a degree but he was unwilling to try an easier route. He did exactly what he said he would do and now proudly bears the credentials that demonstrate his persistence. He has yet to find a job, but his optimism remains. I feel certain that some discerning employer will see his grit and provide him with an opportunity to show that he does indeed have the right stuff.

Here in Houston we love Jose Altuve, a diminutive baseball player who at first glance seems to be an unlikely hero in the world of sports. Jose was told that he was too small to play in the big leagues. Teams passed on hiring him. He might have simply settled for another kind of work and played baseball as a hobby but he knew the magnitude of his heart and his own potential so he persisted until someone finally agreed to give him a chance. Now he is a superstar who regularly knocks balls out of the park even when they are pitched at him at more than ninety miles per hour. Altuve is like those pesky weeds, fighting back with all of his might at every single turn, unwilling to give up the fight no matter the odds.

None of us get through this life without trouble. Sometimes we have long moments of respite but sooner or later we each have to face the unthinkable. It is in those times that we have to be like the weeds. We have to fight with everything that we have to survive. We cannot allow anything to take us down. It’s tough to be in the dark times when it feels as though we have been covered with a shroud of black plastic. The days and hours seem to move in slow motion and we wonder if we have finally met the one event that will defeat us. That is when we must show a ferocity that cannot be matched by the problems that stalk us. That is when our true strength takes us through. We’ve all got what it takes. We just have to keep our determination alive.

Sooner Rather Than Later

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She is an amazing young woman. She has worked very hard to earn a college degree and gain respect in her job. There are few challenges that daunt her. She fearlessly tackles problems with determination. She is faith filled and regularly attends church. She married her sweetheart not so long ago and the two of them are already living the American dream in a house that they purchased with the income gained from their dedication to their careers. She takes fun vacations with her spouse and charts plans for living a purpose filled life. She represents the epitome of the future of our nation and our world but she has borne a burden for the last two years that has threatened to destroy all of her dreams.

She is an immigrant who came to the United States as a young child. She lived here under temporary protection, all the while studying and pursuing a model lifestyle with dedication and grace. She has become an all American girl while never forgetting her roots. She is talented beyond measure and loving and gentle in nature. She should in every sense be exactly the kind of person that our country needs, and yet she has quietly worried about what might happen to her with the new immigration policies of the past two years. She wondered if she might have to return to a country that is now little more than a vague memory. She tried to imagine what she might do with her college degree if she had to leave for a place that has fewer opportunities. She thought of how she would miss all of the friends that she has made here in the United States. Her mind has been filled with thoughts of what might happen if she one day lost her protections.

In September she went for an interview with the United States Citizenship and Immigration System. She was applying for status as a permanent resident of the country. She had so much at stake, and even though she is generally optimistic she faced the reality that acceptance of her application was not automatic. She would have to undergo an interview, something that she generally does quite well. It is the kind of thing that is part of her work, but this would be so very different. All for which she had worked would be on the line. She confided her nervousness to me and requested prayers that her earnest desire to be a good and contributing resident of the United States would be seen by those who tasked with judging her credibility.

Those of us who know her well believed that she would greatly impress, but we also understood that such things can sometimes go in ways that are unplanned. We prayed and thought of her as the hours of her interview grew into what seemed like days. It was difficult to concentrate or relax. Happily good news soon followed. She now has permanent residence status and need not constantly look over her shoulder with anxiety any longer. She is free to enjoy her wonderful life and to continue to excel in it. The United States of America just won the lottery with her whether they know it or not.

I’m ecstatically happy for my young friend, but I can’t help but think of the thousands of other young dreamers like her who still live in fear. My heart aches for them because there is nothing worse than living with uncertainty lurking around every corner. So many twenty something immigrants are caught in a trap that is not of their own making. They know as little of their family history in another country as I do of mine. Only stories of people and places and ways of life create a vague picture for them but it never feels quite real. Instead their reality lies totally in the neighborhoods where they have lived in different parts of the United States, and in the schools they have attended and the friends they have made. Sending them away would be as terrifying for them as it would be for any of us who were born here. There is something intensely cruel about the very prospect of doing that to them.

I learned long ago that each situation in life must be judged by its own merits, not some ironclad set of rules that do not make sense in certain cases. The wisest judgements are those that take humanity into account. We have laws to keep order in society but when those laws do not fully consider implications that fly in the face of logic and compassion then we must change them, but so far we have not had the wisdom or courage to do so. We quibble and squabble but never quite get the job done. Meanwhile truly good and deserving young people live in the shadows wondering if and when another shoe will fall.

I am very excited for the new chapter of my young friend’s life. I know it will be glorious and that it will exemplify the dreams of the millions of immigrants who have contributed to the welfare of the United States of America over time. I wish her all the best and feel lucky that I have walked with her on her journey. My only hope that is that one day we will pave the way for more people like her to earn the right to have the weight of uncertainty finally lifted from their shoulders. It’s time that we all push for changes that will make that happen sooner rather than later.