September 29, 2018

The incessant throbbing wasn't something I could ignore anymore. It underscored most of my waking hours, and it wasn't getting any better on its own. I finally visited a podiatrist and received the diagnosis: stress fracture. This differs from a standard bone fracture in that it is not caused suddenly. Instead, a stress fracture is the result of repeated stress on the bone(s).

This made sense to me.  I had been trying for months to get back in shape for a September half marathon after the Great Plantar Fasciitis Drama of 2017. So recent over-training combined with naturally bad feet appeared to be the culprit. I dropped out of the half marathon and I'll be wearing the boot for three weeks.

I'm told rest will heal it.

This current state has got me pretty blue. While I'd never call myself a Runner, I would say that running has proved to be the very best way for me to feel healthy both physically and mentally. There is no other form of exercise that seems to give me the same full-body healing than running.

Wearing the boot isn't all bad. They say black is slimming, and I'm saving on sock-laundering since I only wear one now. But today I realized something else: this boot has made me slow down enough to think. It's made me deal with something I'd been trying hard to ignore.

This summer, my sons' father died. He was 50 years old.

Some say what killed him was a sudden illness - a rapid decline over a few short weeks before the end. But I know - and his sons know - that what killed him took several years. The organ failure was the physical cause, but the actual illness had been slowly swallowing him for what feels like forever.

Though we had been divorced for nearly 17 years by the time he died, his death still rocked me. He had been my parenting partner, and before that, he had been my friend. He had been the man I married in 1991, fully expecting to be partners for life. But, things change and people change, and our marriage only lasted 10 years. Hindsight allows me now to understand more fully what happened all those years ago. But, in any case, he and I were good co-parents for the majority of our sons' childhoods. We were so amicable in the early years apart that it was several summers of swim meets before the other swim team parents knew we were, in fact, divorced. It was the talk of the snack shack when the news finally broke. All those summers ago, standing beside each other at the end of the pool, we were lock-step, rooting for our little boys with complete, unified devotion. I always thought we'd be that way.

While those swim meet-tandem moments became less frequent as our lives gradually diverged, I never, not for one moment, doubted his love for our sons. Ultimately, for reasons I am only now able to truly see, we became estranged. The recurring theme of our conflicts was always connected to the subject of his drinking. This hadn't been what ended our marriage. It was what ended our co-parenting partnership.

Repeated stress.

Today, I look down at this boot and can identify the root cause of my current condition - this stress fracture. It wasn't over-training. That was just the symptom, inspired by my yearning to run more, push myself harder and focus on something else, anything else besides the fact that my sons were losing their father and there was nothing I could do about it - the reality that despite our years of trying to get him help, this illness was finally going to kill him.

Repeated stress.

At the end, he didn't have people in his life to help with the details. His family lives across the country and he'd distanced himself from all of his friends. He'd had trouble holding down jobs, so there weren't colleagues either. That left his two sons...and me.

There is nothing that can prepare you for the details surrounding the death of a loved one. And despite everything, despite our estrangement, despite my disgust at his countless rejections for help, despite it all, he was still the father of our sons. So, as his final days approached, our boys, just 26 and 21, the "next of kin," were tasked with all the details of the death of their father. After all this time, after all that they'd been through, that was not something I was going to stand by and watch them have to do alone, so I stepped in. And beyond the mere fact that their dad was dying of an illness we believed could have been prevented, there had been further complications that only surfaced when he became hospitalized and terminally diagnosed. A pending foreclosure, mounds of debt, and unpaid life insurance premiums just added to the emotional torrent.

Repeated stress.

The funeral is now over. And thanks to the incredible generosity of his college friends, our sons and I were able to travel to his childhood home for the service. They got to see their dad's relatives and reunite with cousins they'd seen mostly in photographs. And the night before the funeral, our boys got to meet their dads' college family and were overwhelmed with the stories they heard, stories about a man they hardly even knew. A man who had gradually disappeared sometime during their youth.

The boys are working hard to move forward, each in their own way. I am incredibly proud of them for what they've been through and for their steadfast love for their dad despite everything. They have seen firsthand the fracturing of a man because of addiction. But now that it's over, and I think they are healing.

As for me, sitting here with this boot on, I'm finally getting some rest. And I think I feel myself starting to heal, too.

The Benefits of Re-Routing: Finding Hope When There Are No U-turns

June 3, 2018

A few weeks ago, I traveled out of state for work. After a full day of school presentations, I was tired and ready to get back home. Three hours away, on an unfamiliar highway in the mountains where cell service is spotty, my phone navigation lagged in a dead spot for just a moment and I missed my exit. 
Worst yet, there was no place to turn around. I had to drive 20 miles the wrong way before I could finally head back in the direction of home.

But on that road traveling the wrong way cursing emphatically, I was reminded that in life, we rarely get to turn around. Sometimes we have to go the wrong way for a long time before we get a chance to get back on the right road.

I haven't always known this. As a kid, I loved "do-overs". Whether it was a roll of dice, a hand of cards, or a final shot at the free throw line, if I didn't like the outcome the first time, as the big sister, I often declared the need to do it again. And my younger brother, always eager to please, would agree. I'd always get another chance: another roll, another hand, another shot at the basket.

In middle school, our family got our first computer. My brother and I were supposed to take turns - one complete game per person and then switch. The problem was, I rarely finished a whole game so he didn't get many chances to play. I would constantly find a reason to start over. Looking back now, my brother's patience was saint-like. I ought to give him a call and apologize.

As I grew older, my desire for a do-over when things didn't go my way continued. While rehearsing for piano recitals, I'd start over every time I flubbed a note. Eventually, I would get through the piece error-free, but the beginning of the song was always better than the rest of it.

I've done this a lot over the years, looking for the do-over so I can get a better outcome. Lots of staccato-moments, lots of beginnings, lots of starting, stumbling and seeking to start again. Parenting, though, doesn't offer do-overs. There's no time you can turn around and try again. You just have to keep going and hope there's another way to get where you're headed, hope for re-routing.

There have been plenty of times I would have loved to call "do over" when I'd flubbed as a mom. The little mistakes like when I let my son eat too much Easter candy before church and he vomited all over the crowded pews of parishioners. And the big mistakes, like the times, I promised I wouldn't tell anyone about my son's crisis, letting stigma keep him from getting help.

Knowing what I know now - that the impact of stigma can be devastating and that the lack of information and support can lead to the lack of hope - I would definitely do things differently. But, sadly, there are no U-turns in parenting. 

The good news is when our life roads get re-routed, we have new opportunities. My re-routing has allowed me to meet some other wayward travelers.

Recently, I gave a presentation and I included parts of our family's story. One of the participants followed me out to my car afterward and asked if I had a few minutes to talk. 

"Thank you for coming today and telling your story," he said, and his eyes cast down before adding, "I feel like you came here just for me." 

For privacy, I won't share the specifics about his loved one in crisis, but he said it was the first time he'd told anyone about it. He appeared visibly shaken, yet also somewhat relieved.

When I share my family's story in presentations or at meetings, people often seek me out later, privately, either that day or days, weeks, even months later to tell me their own story, relieved and grateful knowing there are others who've been through this too. Sometimes I say to them, "we're members of a club we never knew we joined -but we are in it together." 

These encounters are powerful. No matter how many times someone says, "Thank you for telling your story - I feel so much better because of ..." something washes over me. Their relief and their gratitude fill me up, temporarily quelling the guilt I still feel about my own son and what happened years ago. Often, they conclude by saying something like this, "Just know that you helped someone today."

This isn't about my story, though. And you don't have to have a blog or change careers to make a positive impact on someone else. Each of us traveling, whether by broken GPS or not, has the power to help other lost travelers simply by sharing our story. It's not complicated and it doesn't require special training. It might be hard at first but it's worth it. By sharing our stories with other solo travelers, our own roads become less lonely.

I've met amazing people and learned so much on this re-routed journey so far. My road has even intersected with my older son's. Sometimes, I have the chance to travel with him briefly sharing a leg of our journeys together before our roads diverge again.

But I'll keep going this way - allowing the GPS to reroute me, trusting that the highway I'm traveling is the right one for me. And hopefully, at some point up ahead, at an intersection I can't yet see, my road will merge with my son's again and we can travel the rest of it together.

Unwinding the Stress Ball That Is Today's American School

May 20, 2018

I don't miss it. 

I do miss my students. And I miss my teacher-colleagues. But I don't miss my work in the classroom.

Jockeying for my turn in the faculty restroom. Feigning interest in faculty meetings that should have been e-mails. Trying to unhear the parents abuzz in the parking lot brimming with their Pinterest-post plans for their kid's next project.

Talk. Task. Test. 
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. 
And, of course, the Anxiety.

The average eleven-year-old should not even know the word Anxiety. But during my 25 years, more and more often, my students arrived in August with this diagnosis already documented. And it's not only the students' anxiety that increased over my years in the classroom. The teachers and the parents felt it, too. Achievements. Recognition. Ribbons. Awards. Each came with its extra bonus dose of stress to be the best.

I couldn't see it from the inside because it happened so gradually. But now, a year later and metaphorically miles away, I can see what's happening and what we can do about it.

These days, teachers are reporting very high rates of stress. This article explains the multiple impacts of teacher stress. Teacher turn-over is on the rise and our newest teachers are the first to find the door. Nearly half of all new teachers change careers within their first 5 years. But the impacts of their stress go beyond the teachers and their colleagues - their stress impacts their students.

Our kids are feeling pressures at levels I didn't see when I first began teaching. Their stress may affect their ability to view the world as a safe, welcoming place, an understanding place where efforts are encouraged and failure isn't a dirty word. One of my mantras, when I was a teacher, was "failure is an opportunity" - meaning that without failing we don't really learn. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with that messaging. This report explores teen depression and anxiety in today's youth, identifying social media and school pressures as leading causes of the rise in mental health-related concerns in recent years. 

In extreme cases, student stress may even be killing them. While I am not suggesting that stress and anxiety singularly lead to youth suicide, I am saying it could be a contributing factor. Suicide deaths are complex, not caused by one isolated incident or issue. And we know that 9 out of 10 suicide deaths are due to underlying mental illness. But did you know that anxiety can be a mental illness?

Nearly 3,500 high school age young people attempt suicide every day. Look at the seasonability of suicide in adults versus youth cited in this article. Adults tend to complete suicide in the summer, but for young people, the highest rates of suicide are in the fall - which for a great majority of young people, is the start of a new school year.

And, we mustn't forget the parents. It seems that everyone looks to parents to be the solution. We want to hold them responsible for everything, don't we? This report aptly explains that it takes a balance between school, students, parents, and the community at large to create a healthy atmosphere for today's young people to thrive.

This is a virus that is spreading but we can stop it. Not every school environment is teeming with pressures tied to AP course enrollment or state-test achievement, but our children - and their teachers and parents- feel pressure to be the best at something. Or, worse, they feel like failures if they aren't considered good at anything.

But we can help alleviate the stressors affecting today's students, teachers, and parents.

Tell your child that you are proud of them, not only when they have completed something with "success". But, more importantly, choose a time when they are struggling and let them know that THAT makes you proud of them. Their determination, their curiosity, their tenacity is what makes you proud. NOT their blue ribbon or their "A+". Speaking of grades, STOP looking so closely at them. Instead, focus on what your child LEARNED. A grade, regardless of where it came from, is inherently subjective. Even nationally-standardized tests have some level of bias. And while I am not suggesting you completely ignore the grades your child brings home, since that's not exactly practical today, I am suggesting you discuss with your child what they learned rather than focus on what score they received. With this refocusing of values, you, too, may feel your parent pressures lighten as well.

Convey the message to your students that "Failure is an opportunity" and learning happens when there is a challenge to overcome. Find that "sweet spot" between too easy and too difficult and lead them to it. Recognize their efforts - genuine efforts - rather than just their "achievements". Maybe instead of posting high scores on the bulletin board, post students' responses about WHAT THEY LEARNED in the process. And don't be afraid to challenge your leadership if you think the expectations they have for your students are not developmentally appropriate. You know your students far better than your leadership does. Your students and their parents trust you to look out for them. Seek ways to educate your leadership if they dismiss students' social-emotional needs in lieu of school-level achievement. I know this can be risky, as you may feel you could lose your job, but no job or school achievement is worth a child's life.

Recognize that your value is not determined by a score, or a ranking, or a label. Your value is so much more than any of that. Rather than defining yourself by your achievements define yourself by your character. Be the kid who is always kind and who always tries and who is always curious. THAT will expose your VALUE so much more thoroughly. Seek out others who appreciate you for you. Spend time with those who make you feel like your best self, the person who you know yourself to be. And if you feel pressures or stress, know you are not alone. There are people who can help you and who will listen. You can call them. You can text them. And, I am one of them. I will help. I promise.



"Three Hours Outside Myself" - Another Mother's Story

January 19, 2018

There's nothing like an ambulance ride to the emergency room to help you put life back into perspective. On Dec. 28, 2017, I experienced a sudden onset of symptoms that presented much like either a Panic Attack or a Stroke.

After three hours of terrifying symptoms, including the loss of feeling in my limbs as well as a brief spell of aphasia (speech disruption), my condition improved. I regained full use of my limbs and the ability to speak. It was like someone flipped a switch and turned me back on.

The final diagnosis, arrived upon through the process of elimination, was Migraine with Aura.

I'm not writing this post about Migraines or Panic Attacks or Strokes. Instead, I'm writing about what that near brush with death taught me.

I don't claim to understand what it feels like to truly face death, to be diagnosed with a terminal illness or to miraculously survive a catastrophic accident. Nope, I was just really sick for a few short hours. But the things I thought about, the things that swirled around inside my head for those scary hours, really impacted me. Actually, no, it wasn't the things I thought about. It was the things I didn't think about that really caused me to take note.
  • I never thought about how much money I had made.
  • I never thought about much I weighed or the size of jeans.
  • I never thought about whether my purse or my shoes or my coat were this year's hottest trend.
  • I never thought about whether or not any gray sprouts were peeking out of my hairline.
  • I never thought about how many followers I had on social media.
  • And I never thought about who the president is.
  • Believe me.
No, for those few scary hours, I thought only about people, my people, the people in my life that matter most to me and how much I love them.

I thought about how my older son had been through so much and how proud I was of his journey. How much I wanted him to continue his recovery and eventually be out on his own.

I thought about my husband and, although we found each other late in life, how lucky we've been to have shared these years together.

And I thought about my younger son, and how proud I was of the young man he is becoming. 

Luckily, this frightening experience was brief and my symptoms subsided quickly. I had only about three hours to worry that my time was up. 

But it's taken me three weeks to get myself to write this. And it was watching the movie "Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri" that finally inspired me to open up at all. The mother in that movie was filled with such rage, such regret, such pain. And all she wanted was to feel some sense of resolution. She thought she knew exactly what would fix it.

If you've seen the film, you know if her efforts get her what she wanted. If you haven't seen the film, I won't spoil it for you. I'll just say watching that film inspired me to write about this. 

I'm grateful that I had those three hours, just long enough to remember the things that matter and the things that don't. Sometimes you need a few hours outside yourself to bring life back into perspective.

Happy 2018.


Requiem for a Turkey

Nov. 22, 2017

Seven years ago, as Thanksgiving loomed, my household was slowly unraveling. I was a single mother with two teenage sons, one of whom was experiencing the onset of serious mental illness. We had not shared with our friends and family anything about his condition. We hadn't really acknowledged it yet ourselves. In fact, my sons' father was unwilling to discuss it with me at all, citing only typical teen angst and a mother's over-reaction. And, as far as I could tell, my younger son was well-distracted by video games, 13-year-old girls, and new pimples. I had hoped he had not noticed the gradual disintegration of our home.

Only my immediate family knew that my 18-year-old son was seeking mental health treatment and that he'd been diagnosed with depression. That was the extent of it, and most people didn't even know that.

I was denying the obvious, determined that silent resolve was my only option.

And, because I usually hosted my parents for Thanksgiving, I first thought I'd just put on my game face and power through it. Only a few times a year I attempt a Martha-Stewart-Style meal, so I figured I needed to suck it up. But as we reached mid-November, it became clear that I was not cooking a turkey this year.

I remember agonizing over how to tell my parents I wasn't hosting Thanksgiving Dinner. At no point did I recognize that what I really feared sharing was far more intense than the thought of thawing and stuffing a 12-pound Butterball.

Instead, I convinced them (and myself) that I wanted to do something for others on Thanksgiving rather than host the traditional, gluttonous holiday meal. I expressed disdain for our society's disgusting obsession with the "wrong" message, even dipping my toe into the Pilgrims-Natives historical perspective and claiming revenge for our American Indian ancestors.

Frankly, I was off the rails with rejection about hosting a classic Thanksgiving. I researched local organizations that offered service opportunities for the day and opted for Meals on Wheels. Under the veil of social consciousness, I pitched the idea to my parents.

They weren't thrilled, but they agreed. My mom offered to help me make plans to "give back" for Thanksgiving. Funny, I don't even remember telling my sons about this. I suppose it didn't rile them one way or another or I'd remember, right? In hindsight, my suspicions are that my older son was so deep in the throes of his illness by then that he wasn't able to care, and my younger son was so traumatized by the daily uncertainty of his family life, that he wasn't able to care either.

My only recollection is that I stressed out about telling my parents that I wasn't cooking a turkey.

As all the planning for holiday humanitarianism was playing out, the symptoms of my son's illness were becoming more obvious and harder to ignore. Yet, somehow, I did just that. His volatile moods had become an expectation rather than a surprise. His swings between angry accusations and weepy apologies were now the norm.

Each day, driving home from the school where I taught and where my younger son attended, we avoided discussions about his older brother. He didn't ask any questions and I didn't offer any answers. It was as if we had made an unspoken pact of distraction and denial. Instead, we silently savored the steady, predictable hum of the engine as we traveled the 25-minute commute back home, never acknowledging the reality and unpredictability of what may be waiting for us there.

Thanksgiving Day went off without a hitch at first. We used two cars between the five of us and distributed hot meals to grateful individuals living in seclusion for various reasons. Some were elderly, some ill. All of them were alone and deeply appreciative of our offering.

I remember thinking, "This is really good for the boys to experience. I'm so glad we're doing this. They need to see what outreach looks like. They need to be involved in caring for those in need of support, those who really need help."

I never once realized that we, too, fit in that category.

Once we'd delivered all the dinners, it was time for us to seek out our own hot meal. I had imagined we'd go to a Chinese restaurant. In my mind, that would be the perfect outright objection to the holiday nonsense that I'd claimed had inspired me to skip all turkey prep this year.

We piled into one car and began our search for the perfect Anti-Thanksgiving respite. The Chinese restaurants that I had in mind were all - surprisingly - closed.

Somehow in my planning, I'd failed to actually call them to check. I had believed completely in my fantasy that our local Chinese restaurant owners would ignore their new home country's holiday and remain open to serve revolutionary families like ours.

So we drove up and down the highway in search of a restaurant that was open. My sons were hungry and so was my dad. I bit my nails nervously, scanning both sides of the street for someplace with lights on. The first time we circled, my dad had spotted a diner serving a "Traditional Turkey Meal". I immediately opposed the idea - citing my determination to rebel this year. As we made our second and third pass by Said Diner, the growling from my companions grew louder.

I finally relented.

We slid into a booth at our neighborhood diner less than one mile from my house. And, despite my strong objection, most of our party of five chose from the menu the Traditional Turkey Meal.

There's a lot to give thanks for these days, seven years later: my sons, my parents, my husband of three years. But, I really can't get into that right now.

I've got a turkey to cook.

Etched Deep: A Place Where Art Reclaims Lives

Aug. 4, 2017

There is a place downtown where creativity inspires dreams in those who had long ago stopped dreaming. Where vision reignites ambition in those who'd long since given up. Where praise encourages the ignored and trust empowers the doubted. 

There is a place downtown where Hope is etched deep.

Ken greets us at the door. He's happy to see us again but sorry that he can't remember our names. He says we do look familiar. He just isn't so good with names anymore because of all the ECT. He laughs nervously like he's convincing himself that this is somehow funny. He doesn't know what projects we're doing tonight, but he knows they'll be good.

Pharoah comes in and puts his crumpled grocery bag on the table--it isn't filled with groceries, it's filled with notebooks. Removing each one reverently, he stacks them, then lays a hand down on the top one as if to swear an oath. Quietly, he asks if we'd like to hear a poem. If we do, he'll need a minute to find one that is appropriate for all audiences, one that doesn't have curse words and that doesn't require yelling.

And Nate arrives to drop off his hand drawn flyers advertising his debut art show coming up next month. He shuffles on the balls of his feet, nodding proudly when he learns his show will be the most well-attended one to date. He tells us of his girlfriend Sheila and how she's had Lyme Disease. He's very pleased to meet us and repeats our names again as if to memorize them before he disappears out into the city.

We sit down and we each pick up a tile. Yellow or pink. We pick up our carving tools and begin to create our own unique designs. Anything we want to imagine. We are told we can do whatever we think of as long as we carve deep. Get down below the color surface so it sticks when they fire the tile. So it stays. Just carve it in. Dig down deep. Dream hard.

Ken and Pharoah, Nate and Sheila know how to dig deep. And they have remembered how to dream and to imagine and to create right here. Their freedom to hope was etched deep into them when they first stepped inside this place.

Yes, we know Poverty and Homelessness lurk just outside that door. And we see Mental illness and Addiction hovering there too. But Ken and Pharoah, Nate and Sheila don't get distracted by that gloom. 

Their Hope, like ours, is etched deep.

Still Hope

July 26, 2017

It's been seven years since
the Wave of my son's illness first crashed over him.
Seven years since I realized he needed something
that neither he nor I could see nor taste, smell nor hear, touch nor feel.
Seven years since I tried to find the boy
who'd disappeared in Darkness
and smother out his Pain. And Sadness.

But Sadness swallowed him whole.

It's been more than four years since
my son went to Prison.
More than four years since he decided,
from the backseat of a Police Car,
to finally accept his Diagnosis.
More than four years since
I finally received the Call
and he stopped running
Four years since
I finally knew where he would sleep that night
and I felt Relief. And Sadness.

Sadness swallowed me whole.

It's been over a year since
my son left Prison.
Over a year since he came out the other side
and began to face the world of Recovery,
discovering it is a world of constant motion.
Like treading water,
Recovery expects constant Movement,
constant Effort, constant Work,
Recovery nags, never satisfied.
The journey of Recovery is always that.
A journey with no Destination.

It's been more than a year and
we are both Still just treading water.

It's been more than a month since
I left my teaching job
More than a month since
I began this new career
to Advocate and Support people
living with mental illness and their families
People like my son. And people like me.

And the work we do brings me joy.

But also, sadness.

Sadness that I can't solve all the Problems.
Sadness that there are not enough Resources
and not enough Hours and not enough Days
and not enough willing and capable People
to do this Work.
All this Work.
Not enough. Never enough.

So yes, Sadness.

But with the Sadness,
also Hope.

Also Hope.

Lessons in Lifeguarding

June 25, 2017

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a lifeguard. Since my best friend and I both had been competitive swimmers for years and swam on our high school team, it seemed a natural fit to work as lifeguards once we were old enough.

The spring of our sophomore year, we enrolled in a lifeguarding course and attended the weekly classes, eager to sport those classic red swimsuits and mirrored sunglasses and twirl those whistles by summer. My friend was a better swimmer than I was, but I was a better student. Much like in school, the written content of the course came easily to me. I studied the lifeguarding terms, memorized the pictures, and sailed through the written test. My friend, however, barely passed it. You may wonder why I mention this, but trust me, there's a reason. In any event, we both advanced into the final portion of the certification process: the pool test.

This is the part of my story that has, in the past, left me, let's just say a bit disgruntled. But today is different, because today, I have recognized the incalculable value of what happened next.

Before I continue with my story, here's a little Lifeguarding 101. When someone is drowning, the victim is either "passive" or "active" based on their condition as the lifeguard approaches. A passive victim would be one who is face down in the water, unconscious. Obviously, the immediate concern is that their breathing is compromised. A lifeguard is taught to approach this victim promptly, turn them over to their back so they have air, and swim them to safety. Then, of course, resuscitation would be next, but typically there is at least one other person to help you with that. On the other hand, an active victim, although alert and awake, is actually (in my experience) more challenging to save because, well, because they are "active." They see you and want your help, but they may panic and resist your assistance despite the fact that they need you to save their life.

When saving an active drowning victim, you have to take extra care of your own safety in order to adequately save them. You may have to approach them and then back up again, gather yourself, and then reapproach cautiously, trying a slightly different method. You have to remember, that in trying to survive, the active drowning victim may, in fact, react in a way that pulls you down, drowning you both.

So our pool test involved one of the instructors portraying the victim and the other one wielding the clipboard and pencil, assessing the student lifeguard's actions during the "save". The five of us in the class lined up at the shallow end. The "victim" jumped into the deep end. I was last in line feeling a little bit nervous.

You've got this. You know this. You learned this. You have prepared in every possible way. 

As I watched each of my classmates approach their test victim, I checked off in my head the steps required according to the handbook that I'd memorized. Each student ahead of me, including my best friend, was successful in saving their test victim. Then finally, it was my turn. The victim assumed passive status, as he had every single other time, only this time, as I swam into the deep end to retrieve him, he flipped him over and began thrashing wildly.

Active victim. Here we go. You know what to do.

I backed away from him, treading water all the while, and considered what to do next. I spoke to him as I'd learned to do, assuring him that I was there to help. I reapproached but he thrashed even more. Again and again, he flailed and fought me as I tried to save him. With all the force of his 6'2" frame, he resisted my every advance. I exhausted every method I knew from the handbook. I attempted everything I had learned to do. I don't remember how many times I tried to save that active drowning victim. Maybe five. Maybe ten. I don't know. I just know that I never could do it.

So I failed.

I was the only one in the class who got an active victim and the only one who failed. I felt humiliated, angry, and resentful, especially of my friend, who hadn't studied that handbook like I had. She didn't know what I knew. I was the one who knew how to be a lifeguard. I'd done everything right.

And yet, she would be a lifeguard that summer without me.

It took years before I finally became a certified lifeguard. Determined to prove (to myself) that I was worthy of the job title, I took the course again in college and that time I passed it. I even went on to receive the Water Safety Instructor certificate, qualifying me to teach the Lifeguarding course, though I never did.

I only worked as a lifeguard for one summer. I got a great tan, had a lot of fun and even saved one child from drowning. It was a valuable experience, but I never yearned to do it again. Not until recently anyway.

After 25 years as a classroom teacher, I am lifeguarding again. Sort of.

Today I work for a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting, educating and advocating for people living with serious mental health conditions and for their loved ones. So, in a way, I am a lifeguard again. Luckily, there is a team of us. I'm not out there in the water alone.

Always the eager student, I am researching and memorizing all the content I can get my hands on to help me learn my new role. Sometimes our "saves" are easier than others. And although I'm new to the work and have so much to learn, it feels like I am doing what I am meant to do.

But, so far, I've been unable to save the one person I want to save the most, my own son.

If you've been reading this blog a while, you know that over the last several years, in lots of different ways, I've been trying to save my son. There are times when he has allowed me to approach him, hold his hand and float with him for a while, guiding him closer to safety. But he's never let me help him all the way there. He's resisted and I've had to back up, gather myself, and consider another way to reach him. And there have been times that I've feared I may drown, too.

But don't worry. I'm not giving up. (You should know that about me by now.) If it takes me the rest of my life, I will never stop trying to save my son and swim him to safety.

"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] 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.