Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Thread of Life

Giving weaves our threads into a tapestry

This year’s carol was one I started last year but couldn’t finish. I awoke Christmas morning of 2012 to a lump of unimaginable coal: the news that my time with my younger two children would be severely limited for a while. At first, I thought a week, maybe two. Then weeks stretched into months. Finally, almost a year later, I got the best present imaginable: reunification of my family. As I write these words, I hear merry voices laughing upstairs, playing the new Toy Story version of Disney Infinity that some guy in a red suit left under our tree this morning.

Back to the carol. (And apologies for how soft it is! Since I only do this once a year and technology changes so quickly, every year is another crash course in Video Production 101).

It's the latest entry in a decade-plus string of annual musical essays. I feel a kinship to Christina Rossetti, the Victorian poet whose lyrics explore the relationship between human and divine.  The lyrics are taken from Rossetti's three-sonnet sequence “The Thread of Life,” published in 1895, a year after her death. That title surely alludes to the classical Moirae, the three fates who spin, measure, and cut the thread that controls us. Yet Rossetti asserts that she herself controls her destiny: myself is that one only thing/I hold to use or waste, to keep or give.” And as she does in her more famous poem, “In the bleak midwinter,” (a famous carol which I have also set to my own tune), she decides in "The Thread of Life" to give herself (as king) to her King.

The poem is also about solitude, the infinitesimal and infinite space that separates self from other. As I was working out the carol's dissonant harmonies this morning, I heard Adam Frank’s thought-provoking commentary “The Christmas Now: How to Be The Center of the Universe,”  Frank's words struck me with awe:
The simple physical fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light means all of us — every man, woman and child — share the same predicament. We are all profoundly separated and yet deeply connected at the same time.” 
I think this is exactly the point Rossetti was trying to make in her poem more than 100 years ago, before we knew anything about the speed of light. And I’ve used the dissonance of major seconds to convey that all-too-human predicament, as well as postponing the longed-for resolution to the chord until the very end. The piece starts in E minor and ends, at last, in G major. Because you know what? That’s pretty much how I felt about this past year. (E minor is a nice key to be from; G major is a nice key to be in).

So how can we express our connection to each other? How can we overcome the aloofness that necessarily characterizes the human condition? Well, for starters, on Christmas Day, we can give.

Scads of studies show that giving and gratitude are the secrets to happiness. We saw that joy this season with #TipsforJesus. One study found that even children as young as two years old feel happier when they give treats to others. 

What are you giving this year? As 2013 draws to a close, I urge each of you to consider what you value most, then give something right now--money, time, love. I plan to donate to  to support research and treatment for children who have mental illness. I also support the anti-stigma organization Bring Change 2 Mind  because when I felt truly alone last year, this organization helped me to find my voice. And I'm supporting Clarity Child Guidance Center because they represent real hope for children and families struggling with mental illness. Of course, I donated to NPR because it makes me feel smarter. And finally, I'm giving time to TeachIdaho, an organization that helps teachers to create communities of learners.

Though we are all individual threads of life, the tapestry we weave with others as we give is what creates meaning and purpose from solitude. Wishing you the joy of giving this Christmas season! 

Monday, December 16, 2013

I Am Not Adam Lanza's Mother

Now that we’ve talked about mental illness, when will it be time to act? 
Photo by Charles Mims, October 2013
Republished from The Blue Review, December 15, 2013 

On the morning of December 14, 2012 I closed the door to my office and started to cry as the news of a tragic school shooting in Connecticut blew up my Facebook and Twitter feed. My then 13-year old son “Michael” had been in Intermountain Hospital for two days, placed there against his will after an inexplicable and violent episode of rage he couldn’t remember. After years of struggles, we still didn’t know what was wrong, or how to help him. I was exhausted, sad and afraid. The isolation of living with a child who had a serious, undiagnosed mental illness made me feel like there was no hope for me or my family. 

That night, I sat down and wrote my truth. I told about the years of missed diagnoses, medications that didn’t work, costly therapies. I wrote about my worst fears for my son’s future. And as a national tragedy beyond comprehension intersected with my personal sorrow, I called for a conversation about mental health. My cry for help, which I published on my formerly anonymous blog, “The Anarchist Soccer Mom,” was picked up by The Blue Review and republished under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The essay was shared everywhere. Many people wrote me to say, “You told my story! I am Adam Lanza’s mother too!” But a few excoriated me for talking openly about my son’s struggles with mental illness. 

One year after the Newtown tragedy, where has that conversation about mental health led us as a nation? The official report about the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School could be summarized in five words: no answers, lots of guns. Lanza’s mental illness was certainly a factor. As the report notes, “the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close.” Like his mother. 

As the one year anniversary of the shooting approached, with yet another school shooting in the news, policy makers were paying more attention to mental health. After meeting with the families of the Sandy Hook victims this week, Vice President Joe Biden, whose initial response to the tragedy was to push for tighter gun control, announced a $100 million increase in funding to help people access mental health services. Half of the money will come from the Affordable Care Act; the other half has been pledged for rural mental health care, which should be welcome news in states like Idaho. 

Lots of things have been promised. For example, when the state mental hospitals closed, we were promised community based care. That never happened. The fact is that in December 2013, one year after Newtown, if you or a loved one is in crisis, you still have to call the police. And we continue to use prisons as the new institution to treat our adults and children who have mental illness. 

In the past year, I have slowly found my voice as an advocate for children’s mental health. I haven’t done it alone — my son has joined me in calling for an end to stigma, by bravely speaking out about his condition on Nova and in a StoryCorps interview. We were honored to share an award for family advocacy from the Idaho Federation of Families, which my son placed prominently on our piano. 

Where is my family a year later? I’ve had quite a bit of time to think about what I wrote. And I can’t sugar coat it: the consequences of my decision to put my name on my story were devastating to us personally, as we learned firsthand just how harsh the stigma of mental illness can be. 

Yet there were also rewards. I researched and wrote a book, The Price of Silence. The book will be released by Hudson Street Press in the fall of 2014.which explores stigma and other barriers to mental health care for children and families as they try to navigate the healthcare system, public schools and the criminal justice system. I also had the opportunity to speak at TEDx San Antonio, where I asked the audience why we never see a picture of a child with mental illness in a grocery store checkout line. 

My family has also found some answers. Michael now has a diagnosis — bipolar disorder — and medication that works. I can’t tell you how much this has changed our lives for the better. A year ago, I had almost no hope for my son. Now, we are talking about where he will go to college (he says Harvard or Oxford, but he’s going to have to bring his math grade up just a little bit). 

Above all, I’ve learned this year that I am most emphatically not Adam Lanza’s mother. While I still feel a great deal of empathy for Nancy Lanza, who surely loved her son as I love mine, we are different in two important ways. First, by acknowledging the seriousness of my son’s condition, I am empowered to do everything I can to ensure he gets the treatment he needs. 

Second, I don’t own guns, and I never will. 

Some have speculated that perhaps guns were a way for Nancy Lanza to connect with her son. My son and I share some common interests too: writing, history and Greek mythology. As far as I know, a love of history never killed anyone. 

Still, I believe that in the futile search for answers, too many people continue to blame Adam Lanza’s mother, the first victim of the tragedy in Newtown. Emily Miller of the Washington Times is representative of that view. As she explained in her Op Ed piece that followed the release of the official Sandy Hook report:
"In the end, we can’t blame lax gun-control laws, access to mental health treatment, prescription drugs or video games for Lanza’s terrible killing spree. We can point to a mother who should have been more aware of how sick her son had become and forced treatment.”
If only it were that easy. Instead, numerous barriers still exist for children and families who need access to mental health care. In 1999, NAMI published a report called “Families on the Brink: The Impact of Ignoring Children with Serious Mental Illness.” That report addressed school shootings in the wake of Columbine:
"As we struggle to make the lives of all our children better in the wake of unthinkable school violence, we must not forget our children who have serious mental illnesses and their families who love them.”
On December 14, 2012, more than ten years later, we watched again in horror as we witnessed exactly how devastating that impact of untreated mental illness could be to a community — and very little if anything had changed for children and families who needed help. 

If 2013 was the year to talk about mental illness, let’s hope that 2014 is finally the year to act. 

Watch my interview with Marcia Franklin on Idaho Public Television’s “Dialogue,” December 13, 2013.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

No Answers

Why we need first aid kits for physical and mental health

On the first Wednesday of December, I had big plans for my children. There’s something about this past year—the stress, the anxiety, the uncertainty—that has made me nostalgic for Christmas in a way I haven’t been for a long time. I gave up on physical Christmas cards years ago, opting for email ostensibly because I wanted to be green, but really because I was just lazy. And even an artificial tree is usually too much work.

But this year, I wanted real Christmas cards, real homemade sugar cookies and creamy fudge and steaming mugs of frothy cocoa, and a real, fragrant, noble pine tree.

Wednesdays are important days for me. Since my blog about my son with mental illness went viral in December 2012, four hours after school and every other weekend have been my only times to be with my younger two children. When you have to cram a whole week’s worth of love into four hours, every minute, every second counts. And this first Wednesday in December, I wanted to create perfect Christmas memories.

In hindsight, I should have listened to my daughter. She wanted the smallest tree, but her brothers talked me into a bigger one, perhaps too large for our two-bedroom town-home. We lashed the tree with twine to the top of the car, and I made my way home with an excess of caution, annoying the drivers behind me as the kids and I hollered out Christmas carols at twenty miles per hour.

“Let’s saw off the end of the tree so it can hydrate,” I told my 16-year old son when we got home. We hunted for the saw, an old dull one, and he began to work in earnest on the trunk. It was knotty. I held the tree firmly between my knees as he sawed. “Be careful,” I warned.

Too late. In one instant, the saw glanced off a knot, gauged into his finger. He cried out and ran into the house to apply pressure while I hauled out the first aid kit. As we wrapped his throbbing, bloody finger in gauze, it was clear that we needed to get medical attention right away. My mind raced—I thought of my son’s piano playing, his dream of becoming a surgeon. Could one freak Christmas tree accident ruin everything?

“Come on, guys,” I called to the others. “Change of plans.”

We piled into the car and drove around the corner to the Doc in a Box, where we are on a first name basis with the staff.

More than two hours (and nine stitches) later, it was time to take the younger children back to their Dad’s house. No cookies, no fudge, no cocoa. No decorating the tree, which lay forlornly on its side, shedding needles all over the carpet.

“Mom,” my 14-year old son said when I got home. “I think it would be a good idea if you did all the sawing from now on. It was really inconvenient to have X cut his finger like that, right during our time with the kiddos.”

(Thank you, son, for stating the obvious).

My son sliced his finger just a few days after the Connecticut State Attorney released the report about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School last year. And that report has been on my mind. The verdict? No answers. Lots of legally purchased guns. And a young man with a long history of mental illness.

From the report:
"The obvious question that remains is: “Why did the shooter murder twenty-seven people, including twenty children?” Unfortunately, that question may never be answered conclusively, despite the collection of extensive background information on the shooter through a multitude of interviews and other sources…. It is known that the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close. As an adult he did not recognize or help himself deal with those issues."
No answers. It’s the hardest thing about life, isn’t it? When something bad, worse, or truly horrible happens, we want answers. We want accountability. Maybe we even want revenge.

At the very least, we crave simple cause and effect. We want fairness, and we want life to make sense.

But it doesn’t. It just doesn’t.

After my son cut his finger, my friends tried to make light of it. “Anyone can have cookies and cocoa,” one joked. “How many people get stitches for Christmas? That’s the way to make lasting memories!”

I'd still prefer the other, more conventional memories. For me, the accident was a reminder that sometimes bad things happen, and those things are beyond our control. In fact, all too often, all we can control is our reaction to the event.  We can choose to hate. Or we can choose to forgive.

What have we, as a society, done since Sandy Hook to help people with “significant mental health issues,” people like Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, Seung Hui Cho, James Holmes, Aaron Alexis, Gus Deeds? In my essay last year, I said that it was time to talk about mental illness, and it was.

It’s still time to talk. And it’s definitely past time to stop blaming the mothers, a memo I’d like to send to Emily Miller, senior opinion editor of the Washington Post, who apparently still thinks that’s the solution: 
"In the end, we can’t blame lax gun-control laws, access to mental health treatment, prescription drugs or video games for Lanza’s terrible killing spree. We can point to a mother who should have been more aware of how sick her son had become and forced treatment.”
But Adam Lanza was 20 years old. Even if his mother had recognized that his insistence on communicating solely through email was a little off, Nancy Lanza would have had a potentially uphill fight to force treatment for her adult son, as Pete Earley and others have noted. The fact is that the whole system is broken, and tragedies like Newtown are inevitable until we start to make real changes in how we view and treat mental illness.

In a pointed call for action nearly one year after the Newtown tragedy, Linda Rosenburg, CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, recommended a practical, real-world solution: Mental Health First Aid training for everyone, so that we all can recognize the early signs and symptoms of mental illness and intervene before it’s too late. 
“Mental Health First Aid makes it OK to have the difficult conversations — it helps people open up and talk with family, friends, and coworkers. It ends the isolation and offers a path out of the despair,” Rosenburg wrote. 
Mental health first aid might be just what we need. When my son cut his finger, we grabbed the first aid kit. Then we called the doctor and got him the care that he needed. In a few more days, he will play Christmas carols with a healthy finger.

It’s about time we had the same solutions for mental health. Enough talk. It’s time to act.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Choose Your (Fighting) Words

Or better yet, shut up and buy me a latte

I have a confession to make. Social media exhausts me. I was an early adopter—I joined Facebook in 2007, without really thinking about the implications of this new technology. Really, I just wanted a place to play online Scrabble with my siblings and post pictures of my adorable progeny. But early on, I made a critical decision about “friending” that would prove to be surprisingly intuitive. I decided that—with very few exceptions—I would only friend people in this virtual space whom I actually knew and trusted in the real world.

Because you know what? I have enough drama in my real-world life. I don’t need Facebook drama.

When my blog about my son with mental illness went viral last year, I was especially glad I had made that decision. The Internet can be a decidedly unfriendly place. But my Facebook friends supported me, virtually and on ground, as my family struggled to find treatment for my son.

I’m extremely fortunate to have a diverse and thoughtful group of friends. Some of my friends are atheists, some are Mormons, some are Catholics, some are Unitarians, some wear colanders on their heads and pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Many are liberal Democrats. And many are stalwart Republicans. But the one characteristic I admire above all else in my friends is their kindness.

I occasionally post provocative things on my page, because I’ll admit it: I love a good debate! And my smart, informed friends are usually not shy about sharing their opinions. But the one thing that everyone seems to get is the unspoken Golden Rule of online discussions. We can criticize or disagree with anyone’s ideas. But we don’t attack people on my Facebook page.

What does a personal attack look like? Well, it often takes the form of a so-called “you statement,” in which someone feels the need to tell you all of the things that you are doing wrong, because hey! That kind of message is bound to get you to change, right?

Recently, someone who I truly believed was a longtime real friend sent me this “you statement” riddled message explaining his decision to “unfriend” me on Facebook.
I am also sorry for the bitterness you have for people. You told me once that you have not gone into the dark area of you. I am here to say that you are have gone there. Your constant attack on the Mormons church and the people, has proved this to me. You have become a person that I was 35 years ago. A person that I have fought to leave to in my past. You can justify your feelings and actions anyway and however you want. I know I did. However, I now choose how I feel and what I feel. But you are no better than the Mormons you criticize, make comments about and put down. You behave as smug and judgmental as those you are angry at. You have the right to say and to post anything you want, when you want and you want. As do I and anyone else. However, I do not support the spreading of hate. I will not listen to your hate, demeaning or attacking of anyone. Therefore, I will un friend you from my facebook. (sicut, you emphasis added)
The first thing I am going to say about this is, yep! It hurt! I trusted this person. I don’t really care that he unfriended me—that happens all the time. It’s the way he did it, lots of “you statements” and maximum drama. To me, it seems like he wanted to make sure I knew that it was all my fault.

Because ????

At this point, we should all be reminded of Jessica Wakeman’s excellent blog post  on Facebook unfriending netiquette: 
“1. Disappear as subtly and quietly as possible. Don’t email the person to explain why you’re unfollowing. Don’t tweet or Facebook or write on Tumblr or post an interpretive dance on Vine about why you’re unfollowing. Don’t call the person up on the phone and verbally explain why you’re unfollowing. Why? Because assuming a person needs to be informed exactly why you’re unfriending them is self-absorbed and definitely begging for drama.”
Amen. To my “friend,” a) don’t let the virtual door hit you on the way out; and b) don’t expect to come back into my circle of real friends either.

And if you really want to stop the spreading of hate, my suggestion is to go for a random act of kindness rather than a targeted act of cruelty. Do what the woman in front of me at Dutch Bros did this morning—buy the person behind you a latte. That simple kindness from a total stranger moved me to tears. Oh, never mind! You’re Mormon, so you can’t buy coffee… (smiley face filled with hate).