Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What Would Jesus Sing?

Maybe It's Time for Some New Christmas Carols

I was raised by Mormon hippies. In addition to traditional Christmas carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (my father was especially fond of the “figgy pudding” verse), we learned the complete canon of 60s protest anthems, including one of my favorites, as sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, “If I Had a Hammer.”  The song was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 to reflect the progressive labor movement and experienced a “second coming” as a civil rights era anthem in the 60s. 

Remember when people could protest bad stuff and change the world?

It’s that time of year again—the time when media professionals take advantage of unusually quiet offices to compile their annual “Top Ten” lists. Most 2014 lists will likely lead with the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and perhaps of Brooklyn police officers Rafael Ramos, and Wenjian Liu)—manifestations of the same civil rights tragedies that my parents used to sing about 50 years ago. In fact, the past few years have seen several stories of marginalized people protesting privilege and power.

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street was declared the most important news story in a year that included the Gabby Giffords shooting by a man who had schizophrenia and the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Steve Jobs. I had a chance to see the Occupy movement for myself when I was visiting friends in November 2011, the weekend before Mayor Bloomberg shut the Zuccotti Park party down. My first-hand impressions were not positive. I talked to the self-proclaimed media liaison, a pleasant-faced union organizer who refused to give me his real name, though he told me he had been bussed in from Pittsburgh. We had an interesting discussion about classism and Marx, the kind you can’t generally have in Idaho. But while I wanted to sympathize with the message of the 99 percent, what I witnessed was less a collection of legitimate movement sympathizers and more an exploitation of homeless people, many with mental illness.

(Aside: 2011 also saw a black man, Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia for the 1989 murder of an off-duty white police officer. Davis steadfastly maintained his innocence, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime).

In 2012, the top stories were mass shootings: the tragic deaths of 20 first graders, 6 educators, Adam Lanza, and his mother in Newtown, Connecticut; and the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting by James Holmes, a young man with schizophrenia. The shootings trumped even the 2012 presidential election and Hurricane Sandy.

(Aside: In February 2012, an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman; according to Pew Research Center, 70 percent of blacks closely followed the story, while only 30 percent of whites cared.)

In 2013, we lost a cultural warrior, Nelson Mandela, and gained another one, Pope Francis. George Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder in the Martin case, sparking protests that have simmered and erupted ever since. Princess Kate had a baby, and two Chechen brothers brought terror back to America in the Boston Marathon bombings.

(Aside: The most prominent mass shooting of 2013, Eliot Rodger’s Santa Barbara rampage, didn’t make the top ten news stories, nor did any of the 26 other mass shootings that year. Still, in 2013, we talked about guns, and we talked about mental health, and some of us even hoped we would do something. Representative Tim Murphy introduced a comprehensive mental health reform bill, the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.” Despite broad-based bipartisan support, the legislation died in committee this year.)

In 2014, we heard about police shootings (many of those killed had mental illness). And we heard a lot about Ebola. As of December 22, the World Health Organization reported 7,518 deaths in West Africa from the virulent hemorrhagic fever. The World Health Organization reports that suicide deaths globally are more than 100 times more common, with more than 800,000 people dying by suicide each year. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death after accidents for people ages 15-29.  

(Aside: We talked about suicide in 2014 too, first in February when Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose at the age of 46, then with beloved comedian Robin Williams’s tragic death in August. But neither story made the top ten cut, nor did the fact that James Holmes, who is known to have schizophrenia, is facing a death penalty trial, while Scott Panetti, who also has well documented schizophrenia narrowly avoided death at the hands of the State of Texas.)

Which brings me to Christmas.

Forgive me for asking, but sometimes I wonder, when I look at the mess this world has become: what would Jesus do? Yes, that Jesus, the “reason for the season,” the baby god born in poverty, raised in a climate of oppression and social injustice?

Jesus would demand change. Jesus would tell us to love each other. Jesus would die for his truth.

Meanwhile, we buy presents—so many presents!—and bake cookies and sing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” 

We are comfortable with the baby Jesus, lying serenely in his manger while angels watch over him.

We are less comfortable with Jesus in the synagogue, speaking truth to power. Or Jesus on the cross, dying to save people who just don't want to be saved.

I think that if Jesus could choose his own carols, he would prefer Pete Seeger’s call to action: “It’s the hammer of justice! It’s the bell of freedom! It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

Maybe we need some new Christmas carols in 2015.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Two Years to Nowhere

Two Years After Newtown, Mental Health Still Matters, and Most People Still Don't Care

"On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me..."
This weekend, on the second anniversary of the Newtown shootings, I took my daughter to see her first performance of the Nutcracker. Unsure of the exact venue, we parked on the street and followed the hordes of blond girls dressed just like my daughter in velvet dresses with satin sashes. I have wanted to reenact this holiday tradition from my childhood with my own now 9-year old for many years. But this year was the first time we could actually go together. Two years ago, her brother was in an acute care psychiatric hospital, and I shared our painful story with the world. A year ago, she was with her father, who talked a judge into giving him full custody by arguing that the younger two children were not safe in a home with their brother. Mental illness affects more than  the individual: it affects the whole family.

This year, two years after Newtown, our family is stable, happy, spending the holiday season the way we imagine families in Hallmark cards spend it: decorating our tree, wrapping presents, drinking hot cocoa, and making up new lyrics to “The 12 Days of Christmas.” But we know how fragile, precious, and rare this gift of Christmas present is.

What changed for my family in the two years since Newtown? One word: treatment. Before Newtown, I was afraid to speak up and demand help for my son. After Newtown, in large part because I shared our family’s private tragedy, my son, unlike Adam Lanza, got the help he needed. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder does not “fix” all the challenges my son and our family still face: after years of maladaptive coping strategies, he—and we—are learning a new normal, where we ask for help when we need it. And we still struggle, as many families do, with access to care. But we have what so many other families still lack: hope.

In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, I felt tremendous optimism that people finally cared and understood about mental illness. Sadly, I was wrong. The simple changes—earlier interventions, more access to care, more support in the school system, day treatment crisis centers—have not materialized. We continue to blame parents—and children—for behavioral symptoms of brain disorders. Worst of all, we continue to sentence people to jail or relegate them to homelessness because of their illness.

Along with other mental health advocates, I’ve watched the responses to the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner with considerable sympathy. People with mental illness, no matter what their race, also face challenges with law enforcement officers, especially in cities where police lack Crisis Intervention Team training. Here is a partial list of people with documented mental illness who were killed by on-duty police officers in 2014:
Here's an idea! We could send an ambulance on mental
health calls, like Norway does. 
  1. Keith Vidal had documented schizophrenia. When his family called 9-1-1 for help with a behavioral episode, the police shot and killed the 90-pound 18 year old. 
  2. Parminder Singh Shergill, a U.S. Army veteran who suffered from PTSD, was shot and killed by police after his mother called and asked for medical help. He lunged at officers with a knife. 
  3. James Boyd, a homeless man with mental illness, was shot and killed in a confrontation with Albuquerque police. 
  4. Matthew Pollow had schizophrenia. He lunged at the police with a screwdriver and was shot and killed. 
  5. A woman in Santa Clara called police to say she was suicidal. When she answered the door holding a baseball bat, they shot and killed her. 
  6. Dontre Hamilton, who had schizophrenia, was shot and killed by Milwaukee police in a confrontation. 
  7. David Latham, who likely had schizophrenia and had been off his medications for a few days, was shot and killed by Virginia police when his aunt called 911 to ask police to help him. 
  8. Jason Harrison, who had schizophrenia, was killed when his mother called the Dallas police to ask for medical help for her son. 
  9. Nick Davis, who had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was shot and killed by police when he swung at them with a crowbar. 
  10. Rosendo Gino Rodriguez was killed by police in Midland, Texas when he retreated to his room during a welfare check initiated by his family. 
  11. Michelle Cusseaux was shot and killed by Phoenix police who were tasked with taking her to a mental health facility on an emergency hold. 
  12. Kajieme Powell, a St. Louis man with mental illness, charged police yelling “Shoot me now!” They did, just days after Michael Brown’s death in nearby Ferguson. 
  13. Chelsea Fresh, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was shot and killed by police in Beaverton, Oregon. She was holding a rifle. 
  14. Calvin Peters, a Brooklyn man who had bipolar disorder, was shot and killed after he stabbed a student in the face. 
  15. Thomas Read was shot and killed in New Jersey when he came at police with a knife. He had schizophrenia and had been unable to get his medications because of a problem with his health insurance.
This list is not exhaustive: it’s hard to track how many people are killed by police each year and whether those killings are justified. And the problem works both ways. Just as people with mental illness are killed by police, law enforcement also faces threats: Mental Illness Policy.org has tracked 115 deaths of police officers since 2009 that can be attributed to people with untreated mental illness. 

I should stress here that people with serious mental illness are not likely to be more violent than people in the general population, unless they are untreated. Without treatment, the risk of violence to self and others rises. That has certainly been my experience with my own son. Once we had a correct diagnosis and medications that worked, the threats of harm to self and others stopped. I don’t believe that medication alone is the answer—talk therapy and occupational therapy are extremely important in helping my son to navigate a world that presents him with significant sensory challenges. But lithium changed everything for my son and my family.

I think often of the Newtown families, the pain of that first Christmas without loved ones, of gifts wrapped for children who would never open them, of holes left in hearts that will never fill. And I also think of Adam Lanza and his mother and wish for all our sakes that he could have gotten treatment before tragedy. That’s my wish for every family who struggles with the often overwhelming challenges of mental illness. But we can’t do it alone. We need the support of our friends and communities. We need society to stop blaming us and our children. But most importantly, we need access to care. Without treatment, two years after Newtown, for too many families, Christmas is a time of sorrow and loss and grief. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Everything I Know about Success I Learned from Failure

Five Life Lessons that Were Worth the Bruises

If you fall out of a standing bow pose, get right back in it!
You've got time.
I got rejected by Huffington Post today. It stung a little; I thought my essay was interesting and insightful, but their editors didn’t agree. Still, even as my lips curled into a slight frownie, I realized I was grateful for the pinch, the little reminder that I’m not going to win at everything, and even more importantly, that I don’t have to.

The rejection email served as a reminder of far bigger failures, not stings but major body blows. I’ve weathered some more gracefully than others. But without a doubt, each significant failure in my life led to important self-knowledge that has shaped me into the person I am today. As a quick aside, I’m well aware that every one of these failures could be hashtagged as #firstworldproblems. I’ve been truly blessed in my life with extraordinary opportunities.

Failure: When I was 17, I got a C in high school calculus.

What that meant in the short term: My poor performance in calculus destroyed any hope I had of accomplishing a major (at that point) life goal to graduate among the top ten students in my high school class.

What that meant in the long term: Absolutely nothing. I still got accepted to my first choice college with a full scholarship. And as an added bonus, I aced the AP Calculus test, so I didn’t have to take a single college math class.

Life lesson: When you give 100% and only earn a 78%, you should still be proud of your efforts. But also, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist if that’s not your calling.

Failure: When I was 25, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in Classics after giving birth to my first son.

What that meant in the short term: I was so disappointed in myself for being unable to accomplish another (at that point) life goal, in part because of my own shortcomings as a scholar: in all honesty, I do not think I could have passed my Ph.D. language exams without significantly more effort than I was willing to expend. Also, I learned pretty quickly that I was not one of those moms who could “do it all,” juggling the demands of a rigorous academic program with the far more baffling demands of a colicky newborn baby and the attendant sleep deprivation.

What that meant in the long term: When I finally decided to return to graduate school at the age of 37, I was ready to study something that really held my interest and fit my skills: Organizational Leadership. My comprehensive exams a few weeks ago were by no means easy—I’m still biting my nails as I wait for the results. But I felt fluent in the language of change management and motivational theory in a way I never was with Latin or Greek. Also, my Classics training was not a waste of time: I learned rhetoric from Aristotle and Plato, and they proved to be pretty good teachers.

Life lesson: Sometimes it’s okay to quit. And you’re never too old to go back to school.

Failure: When I was 35, my 13-year marriage to the man I thought was the love of my life imploded.

What that meant in the short term: To say that I was devastated is an understatement. I’ve always been one of those people who believed that you marry one person, and you make it work. Worse, we had four children, ages 2, 3, 7, and 8. Feeling like I had failed my (then) husband was awful; feeling like I had failed my children was nearly unbearable.

What that meant in the long term: It took me several years of intense personal therapy and hard work to understand that while I certainly played a role in my marriage’s demise, it was not all my fault. I learned to value myself, to communicate more authentically, and ultimately, to love again.

Life lesson: Take a chance on second chances—but take the time to know—and love—yourself first!

Failure: Just a few weeks shy of my 40th birthday, I was fired from my dream job, and I learned I had stage 0 cervical cancer.

What that meant in the short term: On my 40th birthday, I was an unemployed single mother of four children with no health insurance and a cancer diagnosis! This had always been my greatest fear. And to my surprise, it turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I’d ever received from the Universe. I never would have gone to the doctor for a long overdue pap smear if I hadn’t been about to lose my benefits, so in a way, getting fired may have actually saved my life.

What that meant in the long term: For the first time since I became a mother, I had time for me. While the kids were at school, I did 60 days of hot yoga. I started blogging again. I took long walks and thought about gratitude. I had a minor successful surgical procedure. I volunteered in my kids’ classrooms, took my teenagers skiing, and treated the family to lots of home-cooked love. In fact, we still look back on those few months of unemployment with a bit of nostalgia. Now I’m in my dream job again—at a much more ethical organization.

Life lesson(s): Your job, even your dream job, does not define you. Also, if you’re a woman, get regular Pap tests.

Failure: On December 14, 2012, after 8 years of calls to the police, visits with numerous doctors and specialists, jail time, and hospitalizations, my son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital again. I had no idea how to help him.

What it meant in the short term: I was truly and completely helpless. And I did what I have often done, what I am doing now, in fact, when confronted with failure: I wrote it out. I told my truth. No mother wants to admit she can’t help her child. I admitted my helplessness to the world.

What it meant in the long term: We found help and hope. My son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the treatments are working. I also learned that I was far from alone in my perception of myself as a failure, but that in fact, the mental healthcare system was failing me and so many other families. While writing my book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, I was able to find even more solutions to the heartbreak. I continue to advocate for children like my son and for moms like me.

Life lesson: Never give up on the people you love, even when you’re exhausted. They are worth your best, hardest fight. But it’s okay to admit you are tired and to ask for help when you’ve done everything you can do.

These five are just the big failures. In my life, as in most people’s lives, most blog posts don’t go viral. Most calls for change fall on deaf or ignorant ears. But these five big failures have taught me resilience. I’ve learned to take charge of my own life, to be honest with myself and others, and to ask for help when I need it.

A few hours after the HuffPost rejection, I got a call from a friend. He had just received copies of a new college textbook, The Elements of Argument, which includes essays by Michael Pollan, Hillary Clinton, Henry David Thoreau, and me. Another essay I wrote once upon a time, the one about my failure to help my son, was picked up for my Huffington Post debut under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” Now it will be used to teach Aristotelian argument to students in college courses.

I’ve come full circle.