"Be the Feather"

"I don't know if we each have a destiny or if we're just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."    -Forrest Gump

April 10, 2017

Recently, a good friend of mine mentioned an important, yet sometimes overlooked, symbol from the Robert Zemeckis film, Forrest Gump (Paramount Pictures, 1994.) After reminding me of the notable image from the movie, she simply said, "Be the feather." And while I'd seen Forrest Gump hundreds of times and could quote scenes verbatim...

"Run, Forrest... run!"

"Dear God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far away."

"I'm not a smart man, Jenny, but I know what love is."

...I'd never really stopped to consider the impact that feather has on the overall message of the story. Not until my friend told me to "be the feather."

My friend's wise words were inspired by the possibility of a career change for me. A big one. After twenty-five years as a classroom teacher -- spending the last sixteen years at the same school-- I faced the possibility of leaving for a new position completely outside of public education: Director of Advocacy and Education at NAMI Delaware.

And while I knew my skill set was right for the role, the idea of venturing off the career path I'd been on for a quarter of a century caused me to second guess myself. I worried that the families at my school would be upset. I worried that my colleagues just wouldn't understand. I worried ...well, let's just say I worried and leave it there.

How I wish I was the kind of person who can find something to do and just keep doing that thing until they do it really really well. And then just keep doing it really well again and again and over again. And be happy doing it.

But I'm not that kind of person.

So when I learned I may be able to spin my part-time passion for mental health advocacy into a full time profession at a local non-profit I loved where I'd volunteered for years, I knew I had to go for it. I couldn't possibly pass up the chance at applying, right? It was a long shot that I'd actually get the job, but it couldn't hurt to try...

As the weeks stretched into months, interview after interview...I became more and more convinced that I wanted this job. That I was perfect for it. It was at this final step in the interview process that my friend reminded me of Forrest Gump's feather when I had said to her, "What do I do if I don't get the job?" And then I'd followed up, more panicked, with "But what do I do if I DO get it?"

I had always believed my destiny was to be a teacher. My parents had identified the bossy-pants take-charge attitude in me at a young age and fostered it saying that I was a "natural" teacher. When I went to college, it was never a question of what I would be. Rather, it was a question of what I would teach.

But now, twenty-five years later, I was considering a job that did not involve seeing students' faces every day. A job outside of a classroom.

That thought caused a little tickle of worry to float around inside my mind, float around like a feather. Yes, we're back at the feather again.

Not often am I driven to write poetry, but, in this case, poetry seems the only suitable medium in which to express my sense of wonder at all that has transpired in the last few months.

A feather floats along
looping, lifting, lingering
as if to smile

gently cascades downward,
softly settling into 
newness again

Inspiring hope 
and possibility 

Thank you, to my dear friend, for reminding me to be the feather. Like Forrest Gump, I believe it's both accidental-like and destiny happening together. Maybe the breeze takes us where we're supposed to go, but we decide where, when and if we will land.

I will begin my new position of Director of Advocacy and Education at NAMI Delaware this spring. I'll just be the feather.

Bidding Farewell to a Bad Year

Grandpa Bob with his first great-grandchild, Emma Grace.

December 31, 2016

Tonight, on this last night of 2016, one of the worst years I can recall, I'm thinking of my grandpa.

He was a gem.

Grandpa Bob was a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Rogers: a lanky-limbed World War II vet from Arkansas City, Kansas who always wore his shirt tucked in, usually with a cardigan sweater, and who always ate his french fries with a fork.

Grandpa oozed manners, gentility, and goodness. He was one of a kind. I miss him.

Another thing about Grandpa Bob is that he always addressed you by name. "Well, now, Peter... [insert Jimmy Stewart pause] ...how are you?" Or, "Now, say there, Annie... [insert JS pause again] you sure do look purdy as a picture."

And as he aged, he may have used the names of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren interchangeably, but he always addressed them by name. It was his way. He was polite to the core.

A few years before Grandpa Bob passed away, our family did something unusual. We visited a homeless shelter. I'd like to say that this kind of goodwill gesture was typical for our Leave It to Beaver family, but if I did, I'd be lying. We, like most middle class suburban families, wrapped ourselves up in gift giving and receiving for each other without much thought about how we could make someone else's holidays any better. But, that holiday season back in 2006, we decided to do something unusual.We decided to lead a holiday sing-along at a homeless shelter downtown.

My two school-aged sons, my dad, my younger brother and his wife, Grandpa Bob - who was then about 80 - and I drove to a part of town we didn't know well.  Everyone was a little nervous; everyone except Grandpa Bob. Oblivious to our hesitation, he just smiled his Mr. Rogers-warm smile to each resident as they cautiously entered the room.

We gathered around the piano where my mom plucked out old standards like "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Gradually, the residents joined in with us, reluctant at first, but eventually with smiles. I don't know how long we sang in that big, dark room, but I remember looking around at those strangers' faces and thinking that it may just be getting a little bit brighter in here.

When it was finally time to go, Grandpa Bob, turned to an older gentlemen who was seated by the piano. "Stanley," Grandpa said to the homeless man, "have a better year."

We still don't know if his name was really Stanley. And didn't wait around to find out. We hustled out to our car at a pretty good clip.

Have a better year? Of course, he should have better year. It'd be hard to have a worse year.

With the very best of intentions, Grandpa Bob wished Stanley a happy new year. And, although Stanley and perhaps his fellow residents may have misinterpreted Grandpa's intentions, I know what he really meant. I hope you do, too.

So, tonight, on New Year's Eve 2016, I bid this lousy year farewell just like Grandpa Bob would have:

May your 2017 be filled to the brim with Jimmy Stewart pauses, Mr. Rogers smiles, approximate first names and french fries with a fork.

Have a better year.

Twelve Days Post-Election

On the first day post-election I faced reality: 
Trump just won the presidency.

On the second day post-election I faced reality: 
Hillary conceded 
'cuz Trump just won the presidency.

On the third day post-election I faced reality:  
She got more votes 
but she still conceded
'cuz Trump won the presidency.

On the fourth day post-election I faced reality: 
Riots 'cross the country 
‘cuz she got more votes. 
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

On the fifth day post-election I faced reality: 
BAN-NON? Dear Lord! 
Riots 'cross the country, 
‘cuz she got more votes.
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

On the sixth day post-election I faced reality: 
Immigrants feel threatened.
BAN-NON? Dear Lord! 
Riots 'cross the country, 
‘cuz she got more votes.
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

On the seventh day post-election I faced reality: 
Hate crimes are increasing.
Immigrants feel threatened.
BAN-NON? Dear Lord! 
Riots 'cross the country, 
‘cuz she got more votes.
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

On the eighth day post-election I faced reality: 
They say to “just get over it.”
Hate crimes are increasing.
Immigrants feel threatened.
BAN-NON? Dear Lord! 
Riots 'cross the country, 
‘cuz she got more votes.
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

On the ninth day post-election I faced reality: 
It's time to call my therapist.
I cannot “just get over it.”
Hate crimes are increasing.
Immigrants feel threatened.
BAN-NON? Dear Lord! 
Riots 'cross the country, 
‘cuz she got more votes.
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

On the tenth day post-election I faced reality:
Trump U settled its lawsuit.
I’m glad I called my therapist.
I cannot “just get over it.”
Hate crimes are increasing.
Immigrants feel threatened.
BAN-NON? Dear Lord! 
Riots 'cross the country, 
‘cuz she got more votes.
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

On the eleventh day post-election I faced reality:
Pence got booed on Broadway.
Trump U settled its lawsuit.
I’m glad I called my therapist.
I will not “just get over it.”
Hate crimes are increasing.
Immigrants feel threatened.
BAN-NON? Dear Lord! 
Riots 'cross the country, 
‘cuz she got more votes.
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

On the twelfth day post-election I faced reality:
I won't give up my country...
Pence got booed on Broadway.
Trump U settled its lawsuit.
I’m glad I called my therapist.
I will not “just get over it.”
Hate crimes are increasing.
Immigrants feel threatened.
BAN-NON? Dear Lord! 
Riots 'cross the country, 
‘cuz she got more votes.
She still conceded 
and Trump won the presidency.

 at Hillary Rally in Philly

A Promising Conversation of Hope

September 17, 2016

The other night, at my request, my friend Diane graciously hosted a casual get together in her home. There were four moms and one dad there, as well as one university student and one high school student. The goal of the evening was to have an an informal dialogue and build awareness about Sandy Hook Promise's mission and no-cost violence prevention programs. Meaningful conversations like ours were happening all over the country this week as Promise Leaders talked to people in their communities about overcoming feelings of helplessness when it comes to preventing gun violence. We were all talking about hope.

I began the evening with the story of how I became involved with Sandy Hook Promise:

Up until a year ago, I hadn't heard of Sandy Hook Promise. I had, of course, heard about the tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. That event was life-changing for me. I didn't know any of the innocent victims or their families. No, but it shook me to the core because when I heard about that troubled, 20-year-old young man, armed with multiple weapons, entering an elementary school building and taking the lives of 20 first graders and 6 adult employees before turning the gun on himself, I had to face a hard reality: that shooter, that troubled 20-year-old young man reminded me of my own son.

Until that day in 2012, I had shielded myself from the truth. I couldn't possibly fathom the idea that my first born child was that troubled. Because if I'd faced that thought, I would have also had to admit that I had failed him.

My son spiraled into mental illness after graduating high school and despite my attempts at getting him to seek treatment, he walked out my front door on December 31, 2010, refusing to admit he needed help. So when that shooting happened in December 2012, and I learned about the shooter's past, I couldn't deny reality any longer.

Days after the Sandy Hook shooting, I began to write a blog. I began to tell my story. My son's story. Our family's story. 

Fast-forward three years. A lot had changed in our family's story, but not much had changed in our country's. In our family's story, my son had struggled with unemployment, homelessness, addiction, and criminal activity. Eventually, he ended up behind bars, sentenced to a mandatory minimum of three years. In our country's story, unfortunately, not much had changed when it came to mass shootings. Though America was hopeful that the Sandy Hook tragedy would at least lead to better gun laws, mass shootings were still happening frequently and Americans were becoming numb to the nightly news stories of innocent lives lost and families forever broken.

On August 26, 2015, Allison Parker, a TV news reporter and her cameraman, Adam Ward, were shot and killed on live television. Andy Parker, Allison's father, swore on national TV that he would do "whatever it takes" to end gun violence. I offered my condolences to Mr. Parker in an open letter. to him I posted on my blog. I echoed his commitment to ending gun violence, but I also noted that our country's problem wasn't just about guns. It was about mental health. And it was about stigma. And it was about health care. It wasn't just about access to weapons.

Mr. Parker never responded to my letter. But Nicole Hockley did.

Nicole is the mother of Dylan Hockley, one of the 20 first graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Nicole had read my open letter to Mr. Parker on my blog. And I believe she also scrolled back and read through entries I'd written spanning all the way to December 2012. She must have read the first post, the one where I talked about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and compared myself to the mother of the shooter. Despite that, Nicole reached out to me and wanted to talk, mother to mother.

She thanked me for writing my blog and sharing it with the world. And, this mother who'd lost her six-year-old child to a senseless act of gun violence, had the incredible grace to express her sympathy to me because I was another grieving mother. Though I hadn't lost my son by death, I had most certainly lost my son.

Nicole told me she believed we shared the same goals, the same viewpoints. She said she thought we should work together somehow. She told me about an organization she had co-founded called Sandy Hook Promise.

And now, here I am tonight, a year later, telling you about this incredible organization and its mission to prevent preventable acts of violence so no one else has to suffer such senseless loss.

Our hopeful conversation continued with a short video featuring Promise Leaders in action. Then we turned to specific details about Sandy Hook Promise's programs. Each of Diane's guests shared their concerns about gun violence in our community and across our country. We discussed the climates of local schools and universities, and the two student guests spoke up, as well. The high schooler shared examples of witnesses social isolation first-hand, while the university student told us her plans to start a Students Against Gun Violence club on campus. The parent-guests asked me questions about how they can bring SHP to their children's schools and what other measures they could take to become involved with Sandy Hook Promise.

Despite my emotional exhaustion, I felt myself smiling as I got into my car to head home. The promise of hope just does that to me.

A Quiet, Steady Hum: The Background Noise of a Mother's Fear

June 26, 2016

I recently read Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, a wonderfully rich novel about two sisters in France during World War II. They each, in their own way, become heroes. While I don't have a sister, I could definitely relate to another strong theme of this book, the sacrifices of motherhood.

One part struck me as especially significant:

"The sound of his voice reminds me that I am a mother and mothers don't have the luxury of falling apart in front of their children, even when they are afraid, even when their children are adults."

While I have absolutely no experience struggling with the hardships of war, I do know a little bit about being a mother and being afraid. And I agree. We "don't have the luxury of falling apart in front of our children..."

These past few months have been challenging in our home. The newness of my 24-year-old son being released from prison has worn off. The "settling in" period has faded. And now we are faced with the "getting on with living" part of things.

And it hasn't been easy for him. He's had trouble finding consistent work and he's had trouble readjusting to daily life outside prison. He sacrificed so much and changed so much of himself just to survive almost three years behind bars, but it seems that the man he had to become when he was inside isn't the man he wants to be now that he's outside.

As his mother, it's so frustrating to see him frustrated. And I think that's what he is. Frustrated. He's definitely grateful, sure, because he's not in prison anymore. And he's more balanced, yes, because he's being treated with more effective medication. But he's still, from what I see, frustrated.

And, as his mother, I'm afraid. It's not the same kind of fear I used to have. It's not the kind of fear I had when he was unmedicated, when he was irrational and potentially dangerous. No, this fear is muffled, hushed. It's a quiet, steady hum, a muted background noise, swimming gently just below the surface of my mind. It's always there but I try not to hear it. I try to block it out or maybe even accept it as the new normal.

When I do acknowledge its existence, I ask myself what it is I'm afraid of.

I'm afraid of what happens next. I'm afraid of what may happen and of what may not. I'm afraid of unfulfilled potential, of dreams deferred. And I am afraid I may not see that son I once knew again. I am afraid he may fear this, too.

But, I'm his mother, and although I am afraid, I can't show it because I "don't have the luxury of falling apart..."

It May Hurt a Little

I'm the one in the center front, wearing the fluorescent green shirt
and blue hat, focusing on not feeling the pain.

April 17, 2016

My husband is a runner. Not the few-miles-on-the-weekend runner. No, he's a serious runner. In fact, he's on his way to a big race right now. He'll be running in his first Boston Marathon tomorrow, despite a nuisance injury that brought his training to a screeching halt last month.  He's going to run Boston anyway, knowing he probably won't run his best time, and, frankly, knowing he'll be running through pain for 26.2 miles.

"It'll hurt a little, yeah, but it'll be worth it," he shrugs with a grin as he loads up his car this morning. He's heading north to do something he's dreamed of since he was in high school.  Finally, he'll get to experience the Boston Marathon.

I wasn't crazy about his decision to go at first. I urged him to consult a doctor who then sent him to a physical therapist. He was told his condition wasn't serious, just uncomfortable and could be corrected with lots of strength training and stretching. He was given the "go ahead" so I stopped my objections. Plus, I knew he couldn't be talked out of it, anyway. For him, quitting isn't an option. Lance Armstrong said, "Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever." That is how my husband lives every day.

It is one of the many things I love about him. And it's one of the many ways I aspire to be more like him.

My husband who never quits, even if it means running 26.2 miles in pain.

As a kid, I was a competitive swimmer. But finding pool time as a working adult wasn't easy, so in my thirties, I tried to teach myself to run. It started out as mostly walking with a little running, but eventually, I was running the whole way. I even ran some 5K races and discovered that I almost liked it...or, more honestly, I didn't completely hate it.

For my fortieth birthday, I trained for a short distance triathlon. I survived it and found that I was almost enjoying myself. Almost. Then this past fall, for my forty-fifth birthday, I trained and finished a half marathon. And now, I'm training for another one.

Running for me isn't bliss. It isn't escape. It isn't exhilarating. Despite my husband's ever-so-patient encouragement over the years and promises of the possibility of a "runner's high," I still don't like running. I only do it because it feels good AFTER I'm finished. It's complete drudgery while I'm actually doing it.

But I must admit, that for my mental health, running is good for me. I suffer from bipolar II, which is primarily depression, but includes sporadic episodes of hypomania, as well. When I'm feeling especially blue, running is not something I feel like doing. I'd rather crawl into bed under the covers, turn down the lights, and settle into the darkness until it passes over me. I'd rather quit.

"Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever."

Depression pain doesn't feel temporary. If I feel myself slipping into the dark, the weight crushing me down and pulling me away from everyone and everything that matters, the last thing I want to do is go for a run. But I try to remember that running may hurt a little, but it'll be worth it.  I'll feel better if I can just get through it.

"Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever."

My husband knows that his 26.2 mile race tomorrow will likely hurt a little, but he isn't going to quit. I want to be more like him. A man who isn't afraid of a little pain. A man who is determined to finish what he starts. A man who sees pain as something to get through not to fear.

I may not love running. I may not even like it most days...but I'm not going to quit it.

Confessions of a Part-Time Mom

April 2, 2016

There are a few good reasons why I haven't posted here in a while. First, I spent the last two weeks of January in Miami with seven other national Sandy Hook Promise presenters. We brought the message of "Start with Hello" to all of Miami-Dade county high schools. It was quite an experience. I'll write more on that soon.

Then, as soon as I returned home from Miami, I shifted into high gear preparing for the high school musical I directed, "Beauty and the Beast," which ran the last weekend in February.  I was out nearly every evening and weekends, too. And my husband built the set so he was with me a lot of the time. While I'm thrilled with how the production went, I'm glad it's over. It was exhausting.

As soon as I flipped the calendar to March, I could completely exhale. I was finally able to slow down. It's been nice and not so nice having more free time lately. Because now that I'm home more, I notice what I hadn't taken time to notice before. Not really...

I notice my son. I mean, I really notice him now.

Not just with a quick, casual chat in the kitchen or a polite exchange in the hallway. No, I'm really seeing him now.

And don't get me wrong...I am SO. GLAD. HE'S HOME...it's just that...

I'm uneasy even typing this...

It's just that It's hard to watch him sometimes. To see him and realize what he's going through. I knew it would take time to readjust once he got out. They say coming home from prison is like a soldier coming home from war. And I knew that. And I understand that.

But still.

It's just so hard to see it firsthand. In real time.

I'm being so selfish to make this post about me and not him. It's not fair at all. He's doing everything right. He's seeing a therapist weekly. Taking his medicine. Going to work.

So why do I not make this post about that?

Well, I guess because this blog is me: Still Hopeful Mom. It's a place for me to tell you about our struggles through my eyes. And my eyes are seeing struggles these days. A lot of struggles.

I know he's not satisfied yet. I know he wants more out of his life. And I know that he will get there. But it's so hard to watch when your child wants something out of reach. I just want to grab it for him. And I can't.

I think the last few months were important for me. They were legitimate commitments to Sandy Hook Promise and to my students at school, but I also think on some level they were opportunities for me to escape for a while. To not have to stand by and watch the daily frustrations my son faces.

Because watching my adult son slowly re-acclimate to society after nearly three years in prison is excruciatingly painful. Some days I'm not so sure I can do it.

But then again, I'm Still Hopeful...and more importantly, so is he.

Not Tonight

January 13, 2016

Tonight I saved a man's life. I didn't mean to. It just happened. I was heading home on the interstate and veering to the right to take my exit. But something stopped me.

A man stopped me.

He walked out in front of me. He raised his hands in surrender, sat down, and then lay down, arms and legs outstretched.

As soon as I realized what was happening I laid on my horn hoping he'd somehow snap back into reality and get up again. He didn't. In fact, he didn't move at all.

When I realized this was not an accident and he was not getting up, I threw my car in park, leaving only about one car length from his feet. I hit my hazard lights and called 911.

At the same time, a young man pulled past him and parked a car length beyond his head; he got out and raised his phone to his ear, no doubt, calling 911 as well.

After being put on hold, I finally reached a dispatcher who assured me that police and ambulance were on the way. She advised me to stay safely inside my car until they arrived.

She advised me to leave the man lying there waiting to die.

I didn't wait in my car. Neither did two other concerned drivers. The line of traffic had stalled briefly before resuming at break neck speed beside us. One woman stopped ahead and to the right of the young man I previously mentioned. She got out and grabbed a blanket from her trunk. She draped it over the man still splayed out on the ground. The other women parked to the left of the man. She got out and started talking to him. She seemed to have some medical training.

The four of us, strangers who shared one moment of potential horror together, waited in virtual silence for the sirens to arrive. While we waited, we had come to the conclusion that the man had some sort of psychological issues, possibly delusions. He had quietly asked to be taken to our local mental health hospital but otherwise had said nothing. His eyes rolled back into his head yet his entire body remained alarmingly still.

The police finally arrived. Finally.

I thought, "Thank god they're here. This man needs help." How foolish I was to think they would be there to offer care.

No, it seemed they were there to clear the traffic.

Once they'd determined he was likely a homeless man, possibly drunk, they frisked him, rolled him over harshly and threw handcuffs on him.

The man. Never. Moved.

He was the same man who I had watched try to kill himself only moments before.

And they handcuffed him.

I couldn't keep quiet. "Did he resist arrest?" I asked.

"No, but he smelled like alcohol. He's homeless and has mental issues so he's probably dangerous."

I bit down on my lip hard. "But did he resist? Why did you have to cuff him?" I said quietly, more to myself than to the threatening state trooper. I certainly didn't want cuffs on my own wrists.

I could kick myself now. I should have spoken up louder. I know the others around me were thinking the same thing I was: Why did you have to do that?

I caught eyes with one of the other Good Samaritans and she looked shocked too. Why would they not talk to him first? Why did they have to assume, though they had NO reason to, that he was dangerous?

The man had just decided he wanted to end his life moments before. He was already broken.

Why break him further?

The police officers dragged the man by the arms to one of their cruisers. He never twitched, never flinched, he barely breathed. But he was cuffed, because he might be dangerous.

Tonight I watched a man try to kill himself. And because I was watching the road, I didn't kill him.

But tonight I saw that same man get treated like he was less than human.

He won't die tonight.

Not tonight.

But what about tomorrow?

Renewed for Another Season, the Best One Yet

December 31, 2015

My husband and I enjoy binge-watching highly-rated TV series that we somehow missed. We've watched the entire series of 24 as well as Breaking Bad years past their air-dates. I love to analyze the story arcs, the characters, basically the writing itself, and so does my husband, whose first career was as a writer in Hollywood.

Our current series addiction is The West Wing and the writing of Aaron Sorkin.

I've decided two things based on my exposure to this incredible show. First, Jed Bartlett really SHOULD be our president. I love him. Seriously, he would be perfect, but that's a blog post for another time.

And second, our family's life could be re-written as a TV series.

No, really. Think about it. If you've ever watched an entire television series from start to finish, you'll see what I mean.

Season One of a TV Show: That's when you get to know the characters, learn about the setting, and you basically discover the main conflict, right?

So in our family, Season One would be all about my son's mental health crises and eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder. There would be mis-diagnoses at first. Denial, misunderstandings, but by the season finale, you know the deal. Bipolar Disorder is the antagonist.

Second and Third Seasons of a TV Show: These are when the characters each take on their own mini-conflicts and the audience learns more about each character and how each subplot fits into the larger dynamic of the show itself.

So in our family, Season Two would be all about my older son's denial and self-medicating behaviors, my younger son's own denial (like his rebound to high-achieving academics despite his brother's struggles), and my own diagnosis and treatment issues. Season Three would be when my husband Tom comes into our lives, eventually moving in with us and his own story meshes into each of ours. Remember, the main conflict is still my older son's illness and how we are all affected by it.

Fourth Season of a TV Show: Here's where the television studios really start to take chances. The show has grown in popularity and they want to try some new things. Maybe some actors are demanding bigger paychecks or they're threatening to leave. Those who stay may decide they want to direct some episodes or they may suddenly appear with producer credits. Some are even killed off and replaced by different characters the audience must get to know. The writing takes some turns in the fourth season. There are flashback episodes, dream sequence episodes and maybe trips to Hawaii where the leads get lost in a cave. Some of these episodes may really suck. The characters may suffer and the audience may fear the series is doomed. And it may well be. Season Four is just about the time when risk becomes a player in the show's vitality. Sometimes the risks are worth it, and other times they lead to cancellation.

So in our family, Season Four has to be the Incarceration of my Son. Nothing more to say here. It's at least a season's worth of total setting shift, focus shift, attention shift. Risk. Pain. Fear. Conflict. You name it. We had it.

If you're lucky enough to make it past Season Four, there is a Season Five, maybe Season Six, and possibly even a Season Seven. These final seasons share one main thread: the search for resolution of the main conflict. Sometimes there are wild twists and turns, but you know if you've been on board since Season One, you're not giving up now. You're determined to see it through. As each character's subplots are stitched back up, the bigger conflict is slowly sewn together too. Season Finale: Resolution at last.

So in our family, our last few seasons would, of course, involve the resolving of our subplots: my younger son decides on a college and heads off to the freshman dorms; Tom and I return to Las Vegas for the third time and finally get married while we're there; and, after two and a half years, my older son is released from prison, committed to making a better life for himself.

I haven't actually seen the final seasons of The West Wing yet. 

And I haven't seen our series finale either. 

But there is good news on both fronts.

I trust in the writing of Aaron Sorkin. He crafts stories we can all understand. We feel inspired because, simply, his words capture the truth.

And I trust in the determination of my son. He envisions better days ahead. He is inspired to resolve his conflict. To take control of the writing; to take it away from bipolar disorder and bring it back to his eager hands so he may discover his own truth in the next season of his life.

The Difference One Word Makes

December 6, 2015

Three years ago, when I started this anonymous blog, I wanted to call it "Hopeful Mom" because I thought that's what I needed: Hope. And I figured if anyone else ever read any of my posts, they might need hope too. So it seemed like the right title.

 But that blog name was already taken so my husband suggested that I add "Still" to the beginning to become Still Hopeful Mom.

It's funny how a name that wasn't even my first choice could be such a profound and essential part of this hellish journey.

Through the emotional struggles of my son's mental illness diagnosis followed by my own, as my son's addiction and denial spiraled out of control, and ultimately, during his two and a half years of incarceration, I have clung desperately to those three little words: Still Hopeful Mom.

If my blog name had simply been "Hopeful Mom" I'm fairly certain I would have bailed on this whole blogging thing long ago.

Because, let's face it, being hopeful isn't always easy. The fact that I called myself Still Hopeful Mom added an element of commitment that I may have otherwise not recognized, much less honored.

There have been so many times that I didn't feel hopeful at all:

When my son shut me out of his life, ignoring my calls and attempts to help him with his illness.

When he lied, when he stole, when he promised and promised and promised but couldn't ever hold up his end of the bargains.

When I was able to treat my own illness effectively with proper medication and therapy, but wasn't able to convince my son to seek treatment for his illness. The airplane oxygen mask metaphor may have been appropriate, but it offered little comfort in this scenario.

When I waited for that phone call that I knew would someday come, saying either "Your son has been arrested," or "Your son is dead."

When that phone call came.

When I had to bring my younger son to visit his older brother in prison.

When the holidays came and went the first year.

When my son spent his first New Year's Eve behind bars naked and alone in a padded room. He had faked being suicidal out of desperation after learning of the plot his co-defendant's posse had to jump him. Because despite my son's complete cooperation with the prosecution in his case, their promise to keep my son safe from his co-defendant had somehow been overlooked so he spent weeks fearing for his life.

When more than a year went by before he was actually sentenced and permitted to move to the safer, more stable side of the prison.

When issuing my son's sentence and denying our request for Mental Health Court, the judge said, he's "going to have to do it himself."

When summer vacation came and went.

As did the holidays a second time.

And then another summer come and gone.

When the date passed for his release to house arrest with not a word from anyone.

When he was told the date had been a clerical error and he was to serve another 4 weeks behind bars.

When what we thought would become house arrest was actually work release in a halfway house that had the reputation of being extremely dangerous and less than organized.

So many times I lacked "hope" but I somehow mustered the strength to remain "Still Hopeful Mom."

And then last Friday, I received this phone call that I will paraphrase here as I do not remember the details too clearly:

(Since I saw it was my son's attorney, I stepped into the hallway outside my classroom to answer.)

Him: Hello, sorry to bother you on a work day.

Me: No bother. What's up?

Him: Well, I have some good news. The motion to modify has been granted to Level 3--he's coming home...probably today.

Me: WHAT???? (My knees buckled and I bent in half at the waist. The giant floor tile squares began to swirl.)

Him: I'm serious. He's coming home today. He won't have house arrest. He'll just have probation.

Me: (words words words followed by some other words that I don't even remember uttering. I was in total and complete shock.)

Him: (something congratulatory and some kind of good-bye)

And in a matter of hours, my son was home. He was HOME.

It was that HOPE that saved us...It was HOPE that got me to that hallway on the phone not believing the good news.

It was that HOPE that kept us slogging forward into darkness, squinting to see just a sliver of light.

It was HOPE.

Now, as we put the pieces of his life, our lives back together, this mom will rely a little more on that HOPE.


Jake, me, and Luke, 2015. Reunited at last. 

Hazard Lights Blinking on the Shoulder of the Road, Two Worlds Collided, Finally

November 5, 2015

On my way north toward Connecticut yesterday afternoon, I got the call. The one I'd been waiting for.

My son had finally been released from prison after two and a half years and had arrived at the halfway house to begin his six month sentence.

I expected the irony. Predicted it, actually.

At the very time I was driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike to attend presenter training for a youth violence prevention program, one that I never would have even known about had my own son not suffered from a serious mental health crisis years ago, I missed the chance to go see him in person without prison glass between us for the first time in nearly three years.

I saw it coming. As clear as if it were a vision in a crystal ball, I knew it would happen this way.

He called and my Bluetooth sent his voice swimming into every corner of my little sedan. He said, "I'm here, Mom. Can you bring me my stuff now? There are some rules though. Can you write this all down?"

I pulled over, hit my hazard lights, and grabbed a pen. On the back of the printed out Google Maps directions to Sandy Hook, Connecticut, I jotted down the details he listed off to me:

"I can have razors, but no liquid soap. It has to be bars.
I can only have a travel size toothpaste. Nothing bigger.
I need a towel and two wash clothes, and they have to be white.
I can't have more than nine pairs of anything, no more than nine pairs of socks, or t-shirts, or pants. No more than nine, Mom."

And the list went on.

I scribbled it all down in my purple pen, the one I use to grade English papers. My handwriting was haphazard, frenzied; I made giant circles and squiggly lines pointing to notes about what my husband needed to remove from the pre-packed duffel I'd left in our hallway and what he needed to add to it.

My little blue sedan sat along the New Jersey Turnpike for what felt like hours and only seconds all at once. It was as if somehow time had stood on its end. Tilted slightly, almost falling over, but not quite.

If you scroll back to my very first blog entry here, you'll find it's dated December 2012, and you will see something.

You will see that my first blog entry was inspired by the tragic events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Two years after my son walked out my door in 2010, the tragedy of Sandy Hook finally WOKE ME UP and MADE ME SEE what lies I'd been telling myself.  What shame I'd allowed myself to live with. What stigma I'd hidden behind for so long.

At that moment yesterday afternoon on the shoulder of the road, two worlds finally collided.

My son's entire world --the one of self-hatred, of self-medication, of self-destruction had finally collapsed, completely deflated.

And my entire world--the one of a mother's fear, the one of a mother's blame, the one of a mother's regret had finally imploded, too.

And yesterday, in the middle of New Jersey somewhere, our two worlds, my son's and mine, began, at that very moment, to breathe life again, renewed with the power of hope, the strength of acceptance, and the force of love.

Do I regret my choice to travel to Sandy Hook, Connecticut to attend a two-day training session so that I can make school-wide presentations, teaching students how to "Say Something" and prevent school violence, identify kids in crisis, secure safer, healthier school communities?

No, I don't.

Do I wish that instead of my husband, I had been the one to deliver the duffel bag and give that first real hug to my son last night? Of course I do.

But if given the choice again, I would do the very same thing.

Two worlds, our worlds collided yesterday, even if we didn't touch each other at all.

Today- An Unlikely Day for Hope

November 2, 2015

Today is a strange day. 
So many things are happening and not happening today.

I wrote a YA novel called A Brother's Oath and it's part of an international writing contest called PitchWars hosted by Brenda-Drake.com. Today, well tonight at midnight, my "pitch" and the first page of my book "go live" on a website to be viewed by literary agents looking for new talent. For the next couple of days, the agents will peruse the "pitches" and select some to pursue for potential representation. So, basically, I may get an agent out of this. Even if I don't, I still won because I was matched with Trisha Leaver , YA author extraordinaire. The impact that her guidance has made on my book is immeasurable. I am humbled by her kindness and wisdom.  

So, yes, today I am grateful for her help. I am hopeful for the possibilities of landing an agent, but today I am also incredibly sad.

Today was supposed to be the day my son came home from prison.

We had first thought it would be Oct. 8, 2015, a date he was given by prison personnel in error. Then, it was changed to November 2, 2015. Today. 

Only, the conditions of his release were called into question.  We had been under the assumption (because my son was told this) that he'd qualify for "house arrest" instead of "work release halfway-house" placement because 1) the halfway house is full and 2) his home is "a good one".

We took the steps required to file for our home's clearance in the program. My husband brought documents to the designated office and signed commitment letters stating we were willing hosts for my son.

But we were wrong.

One week ago, they told him he was going to the work release halfway-house after all. Oh, and they told him he can't get a job while he's there because "they don't do that anymore." 

It's a good thing I stopped trying to make sense of DOC operations and "regulations" long ago. Their "procedures" are nothing more than moving targets of arbitrary rules, random dates and times, contradicting policies and ambiguous practices. 

So we took more lumps. We acknowledged the facts of the situation. He was NOT coming home just yet. He was going to live in a halfway house for up to 6 months before he could come home.  We called our attorney and asked him to do what he could, and he will, though he's been honest that the odds of changing his placement are grim.

It took the weekend for me to stop crying.

Then today came. The day he was to be transferred to the halfway house facility.  The day I would get to see him, touch him, hug him, without a thick bulletproof glass jammed between us.

According to his official documents, his Level 5 time (prison) expired at 11:59pm last night. He was told the Level 4 time (halfway house) began at midnight.  He expected to be moved this morning. So did we. Seemed logical...

But this morning came and went. 

I made my run to Target to pick up some more things he'll need, like shaving cream and socks. I held my phone in my hand all morning but it never rang.

Finally, he called me at 1:00pm today.

He had just been told the following concerning his transfer, "Oh, we only do runs to the Plummer Center on Wednesday mornings. That's when you'll go."

Um, ok.

THAT would have been nice to know sometime BEFORE NOW. On the day my son was sentenced, our attorney said something to me I'll never forget. We were talking about when he might possibly, actually, realistically be released and our attorney said this, "I'll never understand prison math."

Neither will I.  

So here we are again: in the perpetual state of WAITING. In the strange, familiar place of happenings and non-happenings where things may be predicted but should not, can not be expected, or God-forbid assumed.

even the 
of hope 
your fingers.

My Lemon Tree

Oct. 18, 2015

They said, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

But, nobody ever told me what to do when life gives you a lemon tree. One that keeps sprouting new lemons over and over again. Season after season.

Over the last few years, I've gotten pretty good at making lemonade, tweaking the recipe for just the right combination of tangy and sweet, hoping to squelch the bitterness completely.

I stirred together my first pitcher of lemonade in December 2012, when I began writing this blog.

Desperate for a way to unload the pain of mothering a son who rejected my mothering, I yearned to reach him but he had spiraled so deeply into his own mental illness, he wanted nothing to do with me.

I'd been discarded with the lemon rinds and the seeds.

I made pitcher after pitcher of lemonade throughout the next couple of years, sharing more about our story, responding to readers with similar stories, and realizing that what I was talking about might actually be helping people.

But one thing bothered me with all the batches of lemonade I'd mixed together. No matter how hard I stirred, it was still so thick, so murky. Finally, I managed to whip up a batch that we could all see through.  Into the compost heap, with the rinds and the seeds, I threw out my pseudonym, Still Hopeful Mom.

No more hiding in the cloudy bitterness of anonymity anymore. No more hypocrisy. I had been talking about ending the stigma of mental illness but I hadn't been brave enough to tell anyone my real name.

I don't hide anymore. You can see right through the glass pitcher at who I am, Annie Slease. That batch of lemonade was especially sweet. Not just because there would be no more hiding, but because the supportive responses from friends and family were astounding.

All the while, my older son has been making lemonade too, from his prison cell. He's taking medication for his bipolar illness, and he's educated himself on his condition. He now understands the impact that his denial can have on himself and those he cares about, and he has vowed to never let that happen again. His lemonade is especially sweet. He tutors inmates to prepare them for their GED tests. Every single one of his students has passed the exam the first time.

That lemon tree we've been given keeps sprouting lemons, and there are times I am scrambling to gather them all up and glean their sweetness before the rotting sets in. 

I continue writing about our struggles here, and on other blogs.

I've written a young adult contemporary novel, A Brother's Oath, based on real events that occurred in our home. It's about a younger brother who witnesses his older brother spiral into the darkness of mental illness, exposing real issues kids face today and the dangers of denial.

I've done some public speaking for NAMI, telling our story at local events and training seminars.

My sons and I have been featured in a documentary film about mental illness and its stigma called Semper Est Sperare (Always Hope).

And most recently, I've been invited to take part in training for SandyHookPromise.org, where I will become the first from my state certified to present their educational programs: Say Something and Start with Hello at schools.

So if you discover a lemon tree sprouting in your own yard, don't worry. You'll find your own recipe. It just may take a few batches to get it right.

And Now, for ACT III

Oct. 8, 2015

Today was the day we thought my son was coming home. From prison. I could almost hear the original score swell as we finally had arrived at the end of this real-life horror film.

But we thought wrong.

In July of this year, my son was told his release date would be Oct. 8, 2015. Today came and went. No release.

After writing several letters to all the prison officials he knew asking why he'd been given no specific details about his pending release yet, today, he finally got answers. Unfortunately, the answers he got weren't good ones. Apparently, the clerk who told him the Oct. 8 date made a mistake.

He isn't going to be released until November 2, 2015.

So it will be another 25 days. That's all. Not even a month more.

He's been incarcerated since March 28, 2013.

To date, that's 924 days.
Or 132 weeks.
Or 22,176 hours.
Or 1,330,560 minutes.
Or 79,833,600 seconds.

So what's the big deal about 25 more days?

I don't really know. But hearing the news today felt like he was arrested and incarcerated all over again. The wind was completely knocked out of me. I couldn't catch my breath. When he told me, I didn't let him hear how crushed I felt. I think he had the same idea. We basically took turns convincing the other one that 25 days will fly by.

Just when I think this entire nightmare is almost over, somebody comes along and tacks another chapter onto the end of our story. It's like we can't cross into ACT III of this horrifying screenplay. The rising action just keeps rising.

I can't climb anymore. I'm done. I just want resolution already.

Roll credits.