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.

An Open Letter to Mr. Andy Parker, Father of Slain Journalist Alison Parker

August 31, 2015

Dear Mr. Parker, 

First, let me extend my deepest sympathies for your loss of your beloved daughter Alison. No parent should ever outlive their child, but to lose a child in this horrific way must be the worst hell on earth. Please know you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

I am writing in support of your mission to do "whatever it takes" to stop guns from getting into the wrong hands in our country. Mr. Parker, five years ago, a loaded handgun got into my 18 year old son's hands.

My son was an outpatient at a mental health facility being treated for what at first was diagnosed as depression. Though he'd been physically threatening to me and his younger brother, he was able to charm the intake nurses into admitting him to the day program rather than the inpatient program of this reputable facility. He was to attend sessions between 9:00am and 3:00pm Monday through Friday for three weeks.  And because he had just turned 18, he was grouped with adults of various ages and diagnoses.

During this program, my son befriended a fellow patient who met him in the mental health facility's parking lot during a break one day and sold him a loaded handgun.

My son came home intending to kill himself, however, that's not what happened.

My younger son, then 13, found the gun in his older brother's room, and, thinking it was an Airsoft gun, held it up as if to shoot it. By the grace of God, my older son came into the room just at that moment and stopped him, admitting that the gun was real and that it was loaded.

Mr. Parker, my two teenage sons kept the secret of this loaded handgun in my house for several weeks.  I had no idea it even existed.

Thankfully, my younger son eventually did tell me about the gun before anyone used it. Unfortunately, though, when my older son was faced with the choice of being admitted to a different, hopefully better, mental health facility as an inpatient or leaving my home for good, he chose the latter. He walked out my door on December 31, 2010.

Today, my son is in prison.

Mr. Parker, I am writing to you because I want to be sure you know our story, just one of so many stories that have not ended well in our country. It is the story of gun control as well as mental illness.

The issues are intertwined, yes, however, it is not as easy as requiring universal background checks to curb the gun violence in our country.

My son would have passed a background check. He'd never had more than a speeding ticket in his life. But Mr. Parker, remember, my son bought this gun illegally, so a background check, even if it would have flagged him, would not have been done anyway.

The heart of this matter lies so far beyond gun control itself. While I am a firm believer that we do not need the same Second Amendment that once allowed our country's citizens to protect themselves against the British so long ago, there are so many more things to consider.

First and foremost, our country's mental health care system must change. We need to identify mental illnesses sooner and much more comprehensively. American teenagers need to be educated about the signs of mental illness and what to do if they recognize them in themselves or others.

Secondly, the stigma associated with mental illness in our country must end. People need not fear what others will think of them. Mental illness occurs in one out of four adults in our country, yet people are ashamed and afraid of judgment. Years ago, people whispered the "C" word. Now they boldly announce: I have cancer. Why can't people see that mental illness is a physical illness just like diabetes or cancer? And it is treatable, very treatable, but those who are diagnosed have to seek the treatment, thus, they have to challenge the stigma. And the three in four American adults who are not diagnosed have to end the stigma and embrace our loved ones with support rather than shame.

Finally, our insurance companies must be forced to provide proper and thorough treatment for our mentally ill population. Even if someone is brave enough to seek treatment and is diagnosed, there is no guarantee that they will receive the essential care they need.

Mr. Parker, I stand beside you in your commitment to stop gun violence. I urge you not only to advocate for legislative measures with gun laws, but also advocate for our mental health community. We need better preventative measures to identify and treat mental illness. We need more comprehensive insurance coverage for it. And we need to encourage our citizens to recognize and end its stigma.

If there is anything I can do to help you continue your mission, please let me know. You have my deepest sympathies as well as my utmost respect.


Anne Slease
Wilmington, Delaware

This Jake on Christmas Eve 2012.
It was the first time he visited me since he left my home in 2010,
and the last time I saw him before he was arrested.

"Why We Fall Down" Runner-Up Essay written by my son Luke about his older brother Jake

 August 17, 2015

Luke and Jake, Christmas 2012
The three of us, back when Luke was shorter than me.
My son Luke wrote an essay about his older brother for a scholarship contest. He was awarded Runner up. Here is his essay.

Who's Holding Your Invisible Strings?

July 20, 2015

If you've ever struggled with a mental illness or cared for someone struggling, you know how unpredictable life can be. The only thing certain is uncertainty.

But for me, there has been a secret weapon that has silently, invisibly kept me afloat all this time: the love of my life, Tom.

We were friends first, having met by chance while working in a community theatre project together, a musical: Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka. I was the director and Tom played Grandpa Joe.

If you are familiar with the story, you know that Grandpa Joe and Charlie experiment with a "Fizzy Lifting Drink" during their chocolate factory tour and they both end up flying. This stunt, as well as a few other flying scenes were critical to the believability of the show--they had to be done right. Our production team rented an impressive flying mechanism, complete with special flight training for our four actors and four flight crew members. We took every precaution to ensure the safety of the stunts, but even then, we knew that one slight mistake could be fatal.

Good thing I trusted our flight crew. One of the members was my older son, Jake then 18 years old. He was smart, reliable and strong, a perfect choice.

During rehearsals, I remember Tom brought the entire flight crew their favorite soft drinks, a six pack of Mountain Dew or a jug of Arnold Palmer, whatever they liked. My son was so thrilled that Tom thought to bring him his own special treat just for working backstage.

As the director, I was impressed and thanked Tom. I remember his response: "You have to recognize the crew of any production. They are what holds it all together. They need to feel important because they are."

He was right. Those working in the background often go unnoticed, yet it's their tireless efforts that keep everything running smoothly. And in the case of Willy Wonka, they were the ones who kept our performers alive. In fact, my son was a flyer for Tom, meaning he operated some of the invisible wires that suspended him high overhead while he flipped somersaults on stage. So quite literally, my son Jake had Tom's life in his hands.

A few months after the production ended, Jake's world fell apart. He spiraled into a blackhole of mental illness that, ultimately, landed him behind bars. He is still incarcerated today.

It hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been the most difficult time in my life. And at first, I felt completely alone. But then, thankfully, Tom stepped in "backstage" and took hold of my invisible strings, helping me hold it all together, keeping me alive.

I dedicate this post to all those selfless flight crew members out there who are holding invisible strings everyday. You should feel special, because you are.

Thank you, Tom. Happy Anniversary.

*The photo above is of Tom, suspended in the air during a flight rehearsal for Willy Wonka. Off stage, holding the ropes of Tom's invisible strings, is my son, Jake.

Caregivers: Two for One Special!

May 28, 2015

This post is actually an invitation for you to check out two other posts I have written recently, both on the subject of caregiving for a loved one with mental illness.

The first article is called "Be the Village" and it's posted on International Bipolar Foundation's website.

LINK: International Bipolar Foundation post "Be the Village"

The second is an article for Amy White's blog called "Far From Paradise."

LINK: Far From Paradise post "No More Excuses"

The Other "F" Word

May 8, 2015

Can you be an extroverted introvert? Or an introverted extrovert? I’m one of those. My moods tend to dictate which “vert” is dominant on any given day or at any given moment actually. As a fifth grade teacher, I have to be extroverted. My job depends on my ability to capture and sustain the attention of a classroom full of eleven-year-olds for 84 minutes at a time. Have you ever seen that dog treat commercial where the pup says, “Bacon!” over and over again? That’s what I imagine is happening in many of my students’ minds most of the time. So, to battle the bacon beckoning, I do my best to put on a good show every day during class. Like I said before, as a teacher, I am extroverted. That’s the “Teacher Me.” But that’s not really who I am. Not really. In truth, I’m actually kind of shy. My bipolar 2 diagnosis came as no surprise when I received it a few years ago. My mood swings were apparent early on. In fact, all my life I’ve had trouble creating and sustaining good, healthy relationships. What I’m about to tell you is very difficult to admit. First: I’ve been married before. Twice before, actually. And second: I could chart my life on a timeline marked not by years, not by jobs, not even by husbands. No, I could chart it by friends. There were the “Laila* Years” and then the “Sharon* Years” followed closely by the “Krysta* Years” and the list goes on. So the fact that I’m on my third (and LAST, thankyouverymuch) marriage is NOT what is most humiliating. No, what I’m most humiliated by is the fact that I don’t have many friends. Not really. If you’re looking at my Facebook page you’re saying, “Of course you have friends! Look at all those friends! Oodles of them!” Sure, “friends” on Facebook. But real Friends? The capital “F” kind? The kind of Friend who turns to you when they need a shoulder to cry on, a funny story to share, or someone to hold back their hair when they’ve had too much to drink. I mean that kind of Friend. Besides my husband, who is by far and away my very best Friend on the planet, my Friend pool is quite shallow. But please, don’t stop reading. This isn’t a “Feel Sorry for Me” post. I promise. Because, honestly, it’s my fault. The pre-diagnosis/medication/therapy “Me” was pretty difficult to be around. There were times I couldn’t stand to be around myself, so I have no idea how anyone else could. I totally get that. I do. And since I’m naturally an introvert, making Friends hasn’t been too easy. But now as my life is settling down, and I have a loving husband, a calming home life, and a solid career, I feel like it’s time to focus on building some Friendships. The capital “F” kind. Which brings me to the purpose of this post. C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” And I think I may have met that kind of friend today. I mean, it’s a little early to say for sure. But there was that “What? You too?” thing going on. We talked and talked and laughed and cried. Yes, full disclosure: there was a little crying. But I don’t want to jinx it, so for now I’ll just say this: Hey, Friend, if you’re reading this, “I thought I was the only one.” *Names have been changed for privacy.

A Thread of Hope

April 11, 2015

Today was Decision Day at the college my younger son plans to attend this fall. From the moment we arrived on campus, the positive energy was palpable. Helium-filled balloons, giant welcome signs, blue and gold pom-poms and, of course, excited college students welcomed the thousand or so high school seniors as well as their parents for a day of university pride. Once we were checked in, and given our $20 gift card to the school book store, my younger son and I entered a giant reception area where we could fill up on “free” muffins, coffee, juice, and fresh fruit. I say it was “free” because it technically didn’t cost us anything…but once you pay the tuition and room & board fees, those breakfast treats work out to be about $10,000 each! Enough negativity though. The day was about school pride and we bought into it hook, line and sinker.  Since the school is in our home state, he was happy to see a few kids he knew from high school while I had a chance to meet and chit chat with their parents. Everyone was brimming with excitement and it was contagious. I fought back tears all morning. Not because I’m sad he’s growing up, though I certainly am. No, my tears were tears of pride and relief because my baby is going to be ok and this morning it finally hit me that he really is. He’s going to be ok. After a few helpful presentations, we walked around the beautiful campus, took some pictures at the admissions building and visited the book store, where we spent more than $20, by the way. All in all, it was a pretty great Saturday morning.

We left just after lunch because I had an appointment; I was scheduled to visit my older son in prison.

Though my son has been incarcerated since March of 2013, I’ve never visited him alone. I’ve always either gone with my ex-husband or my younger son. Today, though, I was solo. What struck me as I walked in was the stark difference between my morning and my afternoon’s activities. When I arrived at the prison, there were no balloons, no friendly faces, and certainly no free food. Instead, I was led through a metal detector and then made to reveal the contents of my pants pockets as well as lift up my pants legs to ensure I wasn’t armed. And the crowd that gathered with me definitely contrasted from my morning’s company. The afternoon bunch consisted of young mothers quieting their babies, older couples frowning to one another, and single visitors like me just politely smiling, not making eye contact, and hoping the visit will begin soon. And, though I was grateful to see my older son again, I wasn’t able to muster the same level of excitement for him as I did for my younger son just a few hours before. Just like every visit I have with him, the tears welled in my eyes from the moment I saw him through the plexi-glass when he lifted up the receiver of the phone. We talked about his most recent run-in with the pod bully and the progress of his current GED students that he tutors. And though he still faces several more months of prison, we can see the end now and we talked about what he’ll do when he’s released. We talked about the halfway house rules he’ll need to follow and how he’ll have to use the city bus since he no longer has a car. We talked for the entire hour and some of it was mundane, but all of it mattered to me because it was all evidence that reminded me that he’s going to be ok. He really is.

Though my morning and afternoon experiences couldn’t have been more different, I have managed to find one thread of similarity between them: Both experiences involved hope. While this morning’s hope was about new opportunities, this afternoon’s hope was about simple survival. 

Either way, though, both my sons are going to be ok. They’re going to be ok.

Two Year Anniversary of the Worst Day of My Life

March 28, 2015

It's been two years. Two years since I finally received that call I'd been expecting I'd get. Two years since my world was turned completely upside down. Two years since the wide open field of my son's future was squeezed into an ever-narrowing shaft of fading darkness.

It has been two years since my son was arrested and incarcerated.

So much has happened since then. Our entire family has endured so much heartache. But my son has definitely suffered the most.

He has been attacked on numerous occasions (the most recent one resulted in a cracked molar that wasn't repaired for 3 days). He has witnessed two deaths, one, a murder by stabbing with a homemade shank, and the other, his cell mate who died in his sleep apparently of natural causes. He has been sent to "the hole" (solitary confinement for defending himself in a fist fight). He has been put on suicide watch, sent to a padded room and left naked for 48 hours (a conscious choice he made due to fear he'd be jumped by his co-defendant who had been placed in my son's pod in error). And he has received sub-par medical care: his bipolar condition has been treated with the cheapest, least effective medication with the most side effects, and his wisdom teeth were all extracted without adequate pain medication. He has gained weight from the poor diet high in refined sugars and low in protein and lack of opportunity to exercise, and his skin has become pasty and gray from such little sun exposure.

And these things I mention because they are the things my son has told me about. He said he won't tell me all the "bad stuff" because he doesn't want me to worry.

But we can finally see the end of this nightmare now. We expect that he'll be released by the end of this calendar year though they haven't told him a specific date yet.

His little brother has been working on lining up a possible job for him when he gets out.

He's making plans to attend college classes as soon as he's released.

And, most importantly, he is finally being realistic about his illness. He has learned more about it, and he has accepted it as a reality. It is part of who he is. It does not define him, but it is something that mustn't be ignored. He knows firsthand what kind of tragedies denial can cause.

And here I am.

I feel like I've aged ten years not just two.

But I am still here.

And I'm hopeful. Still.

A Documentary about Mental Illness and Its Stigma

May 11, 2015

In June 2013, my younger son and I were interviewed by a documentary film maker who was traveling the globe for his project about mental illness and its stigma. Here is the link to the original post from my blog.

We were honored to be involved in this powerful film with such an important message. The film is now finished. I hope you'll take a peek at the film. The director, Tim Hill, plans to submit it to film festivals later this year, but hopefully, you'll help us share it via the internet as well.

A New Perspective from the Cab of a Tow Truck

January 18, 2015

The other day I had a flat tire. The night before I had run over a good-sized rock that must have slowly deflated my tire overnight. So the next morning, I went out to the car and discovered the flat.

As luck would have it, both my husband and my son had already left for work and school so I was on my own to solve the problem.

And these new cars don't have spares in the trunk. (Not that I would have been able to change the tire anyway...) Good thing I had a service program in place. I called for a tow truck.

When the tow truck driver arrived, my first instinct was to snap a photograph or two and "check in" on social media so that if the driver was some kind of maniacal killer at least my "friends" would know where and when I disappeared. (Yes, I watch too much Dateline.)

But the driver of the tow truck didn't frighten me at all. Instead, he reminded me of my sons. He was young, early twenties, with a round, boyish face. He wore silver wire-framed glasses and his dark brown hair was short and combed. I didn't catch his name.

We first talked about how he became a tow truck driver. He joined the crew a year ago when his cousin told him about a job opening. He had been "a pizza guy" before that and had not been satisfied.

But driving a tow truck is not his goal. He plans to join the Air Force next month. In his words, "I just need to get out."

I certainly could relate to his sense of urgency. My younger son seems to feel that way, too. With all that has happened over the last few years, my younger son yearns to break free from the dark clouds of his older brother's poor choices and his father's struggle with alcohol. So, because I could relate to this young man's feelings, I shared with him a small part of our story.

It's funny how just a few words can make a difference.

After hearing about my sons' struggles, including my older son's battle with mental illness, suicide intentions, and eventual felony arrest, the young man said this, "That reminds me of my brother."

And then he was quiet.

I wasn't sure if I should ask anymore. He gripped the large steering wheel firmly and stared directly ahead pursing his lips.

I waited.

Then he said, "My older brother had mental problems since middle school. But he was a really good student. He was valedictorian. And he got a free ride to Drexel... But then he killed himself."

Suddenly, I was washed over by a series of realizations:

I had hit a rock.
That rock had caused a flat.
That flat had required a tow truck.
The tow truck I was assigned had this driver.
This boy needed to tell me this.
And I needed to hear it.

The silence was broken eventually. We went on to discuss mental illness and those it affects beyond the patients themselves. I told him about NAMI and what I'd been doing with it lately. I urged him to check it out for himself or suggest it to his dad. His mother, unfortunately, was out of the picture.

Our conversation continued until the moment he shifted the large truck into park. He tilted his head and gave me a crooked, awkward smile before hopping out to unhitch my car. I climbed down and stood beside his giant vehicle suddenly feeling exceptionally small.

What had happened to me in that 25 minute drive? My head was still spinning when he approached me with paperwork to sign.

"Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome," he said sheepishly.

"No, really. Thank you. For talking to me. That was very brave and I really do appreciate it. You're a strong guy. And I think you'll do great in the Air Force. Good luck."

"Thanks," he shrugged.

I extended my hand to shake his, but then quickly decided that wasn't enough. "Can I hug you?" I asked. "I feel like I should hug you."

He smiled, "Sure, yeah, thanks."

And we hugged. Then he climbed back up into the cab of his giant tow truck and drove away.
I never did catch his name.


November 29, 2014

My younger son is applying to colleges and the deadlines are looming. The choices about where to visit, what questions to ask, and when to hit “send” are overwhelming. To help him with this arduous process, I offered to proofread his application essay.

The prompt was about identifying an event in his life that triggered his transition from childhood to adulthood. He chose to write about his older brother’s incarceration.

He was not eager to share it with me, assuming that the subject matter would be too difficult for me to handle.  He knows me well. I considered it for a moment. Would I finally be able to get a glimpse inside the iron fortress of my younger son’s mind? The emotional wall he has built over the last few years has grown tall and wide, but in this moment he offered me the lone key to the only door. I chose to step inside.

I took the essay and began to read. In doing so, I learned a few valuable lessons.

First, I realized that I am stronger than I thought. Not only was I able to read this moving account of his fallen hero and how he consequently discovered himself, I was able to compartmentalize my own emotions in order to help draw out his insightful viewpoint about that difficult time. I listened for his unique voice through the din of my own muddied memories, and I helped him shape his thoughts into a well-crafted piece about his personal journey of becoming a man.

Secondly, I remembered that we do not live in a vacuum. The choices we make do not only affect us, they affect those we care about, those we hold dear. And, because of those first choices, more choices must be made.  It is a ripple effect. Four years ago, my older son made the choice to ignore his bipolar disorder diagnosis. Eventually, he paid the price: he is now a convicted felon. My younger son, who is guilty only of being born into a household affected by mental illness, has faced difficult choices too. He could have easily played the victim. He could have allowed his brother’s illness and incarceration to destroy him too. Instead, though, he has made the choice to embrace the challenges in life as opportunities to become a better person every day. His brother’s choices have affected him, but he has chosen to use them for good.

Lastly, I discovered that my younger son is going to be okay. I see now that he is healing. While internalizing his feelings was his natural coping mechanism, in his own way, he has dealt with them too. He has sorted through his disappointment, his anger, and his despair and he has resolved to thrive despite them.

Love You Forever-The Book and the Promise

Oct. 5, 2014

I used to read this book to my son every night before he went to bed. It's a wonderful story about the love a mother has for her son all through his life. No matter what trouble he got into from childhood to adulthood, she never stopped loving him.

While the concept of a mother crawling across the floor of a grown man's home to rock her adult son to sleep may seem silly, the message isn't silly at all. It's about unconditional love. It's clear that the mother would never desert her son; she just wants to comfort him. The boy in the story makes some bad choices, but she never stops loving him. She never stops rocking him back and forth, back and forth.

And though I can't crawl across the floor of his prison cell today, I feel that unconditional love for my son just like the day I first laid eyes on him 22 years ago.

So because I can't crawl across his floor, this morning I wrote him a letter. And I consider it quite an accomplishment whenever I complete one because it's never easy writing him letters. That may seem strange coming from someone who fancies herself a "writer," but it's true. It's incredibly difficult to write to my son in prison.

The challenge is really about balance, trying to share my thoughts with him without revealing too much of the gut-wrenching pain I feel when I think of where he is and why.

Tears pour down my face as I carefully select mundane topics like my plans for the show I'm directing or my ideas for re-landscaping our yard. I can't let my broken heart bleed through the drivel I'm crafting for him to read. I don't want him to know how hard this is for me because for him, it's already too hard.

But no matter what I write in his letters, I always conclude them the same way... with the lines from that special book. While she cradles her great big boy in her arms, she sings:

I'll love you forever
I'll like you for always
As long as I'm living
My baby you'll be.

An Innocent Bystander

September 22, 2014

About two weeks ago during a busy work day, I discovered three missed calls from my ex-husband. Though he and I have been divorced for 13 years, we remain on good terms and have always tried to stay unified when it came to decisions about our two sons. So when I realized he had tried to reach me three times in quick succession, I thought something must be wrong.

My hunch was right. It turns out that he'd lost his job that day. He was devastated and rightly so. He'd worked there for more than 15 years and had an excellent reputation. While he certainly has had his share of personal issues, he'd always been on top when it came to his job, but not anymore. He was suddenly unemployed.

While this news doesn't exactly have a direct impact on my life because I'm not married to him anymore, it definitely affects our two sons, especially our younger son.

At 17 years old, our younger son is planning his future. He's a senior in high school making big decisions about the man he wants to become. He's got so much on his mind already: school work, his job, college applications, his friends...Then there's the fact that his older brother is in prison. And now this. His father is suddenly unemployed. Obviously, he's worried about his dad now just like he's been worrying about his older brother for the last year and half. My concern is that he's going to get so tangled up in their messes that he will lose sight of his own needs. And while I've referred him to his counselor at school, he isn't the type of kid who expresses his feelings too well. He plays his cards close to the vest.

As his mother, I just want him to escape all of this and be free. I want him to reach his full potential without the distractions of his brother and father holding him back. I fear that they will always be burdens he must bear. He's just an innocent bystander in all of this. Why must he suffer? He's already seen much too much in his 17 years. He has learned firsthand what mental illness looks like and how it rips open a family. And he's seen what happens to a man whose lifelong career vanishes in a heartbeat. He has done nothing to deserve such heartache.

I love both my sons. And I want what's best for both of them. My older son is in the midst of turning his life around, but it can't happen until he's released from prison. My younger son has his whole life ahead of him, and he's got such amazing potential. I just hope that the pain he's suffered watching his brother and father struggle will make him a stronger person. I wish there was more I could do to keep him safe and get him away from all of this sadness.

I suppose I need to remember that I am still hopeful mom. That's just what I have to be.


July 29, 2014

I have typed this first sentence more than thirty times.

But instead of deleting it again, I will continue describing what I am experiencing right now. Maybe you have felt this way too.

I feel anxious, incredibly anxious. I am worrying about the little things like the eye doctor appointment I need to reschedule and the weeds in the flower bed that just keep reappearing. And I am worrying about the big things like what job my older son will be able to get when he's released from prison and how I will afford to pay for my younger son to go to college next year. And I am worrying about worrying. And that worries me.
Seriously, it does.

I am unable to focus on any one task for more than a few minutes. Typing this blog post is going to take me all day. And I don't have all day. This summer is zooming by and I haven't got much to show for it. I had big plans for this summer: finish some home projects, start a second book, plan for my upcoming school year...But I'm finding it hard to focus at all.

As the calendar approaches August, the stress increases. I know I have important things to accomplish before I return to school in a few weeks. Right now, though, all I can see is a daunting to-do list and nowhere to begin. Would crawling into a hole and sleeping help at all? Because that is seriously an option right now. It's what I'd like to do, honestly. My logical side knows avoiding the workload is only going to make it worse, but it doesn't seem to matter. This anxiety is crushing me.

How can I be a good mother, a good wife, a good teacher, a good friend, if I feel this way?

After re-reading this post, I am tempted to just delete it all. My ramblings make little sense. But instead of wiping the screen clean and starting over, I will post this as is in hopes that someone else out there has felt this way too.

So I'm avoiding one more thing today: the DELETE key.

Bipolar in Paradise

June 22, 2014

Moist, sugar-soft sand squeezed in between my toes as I ambled along the beach. The oranges, reds, and yellows swirled across the horizon and the rhythmic sounds of the ocean blended in perfect harmony with the steel drums tapping out an island tune. For seven days I was in a Caribbean heaven vacationing with my family. And yet, for seven days, bliss eluded me.

It's difficult to know just what kept me from feeling as carefree and euphoric as one might expect under the circumstances. It could be my recent change in medication for the treatment of my Bipolar II. Or it could be the simple fact that my firstborn son still sits in prison after more than a year. I don't know. But the truth is while my entire family celebrated the joyful occasion of my parents' 45th anniversary in ocean waves of St. Croix, I secretly battled a different set of waves all week, the waves of melancholy that have plagued me for as long as I can remember. In the midst of a week-long island vacation, I was sad, plain and simple.

Now, don't get me wrong. I didn't spend my days in a darkened room with the covers pulled over my head. I was very active and quite social really. I jogged every morning followed by an elaborate breakfast at the resort restaurant. Then I sunned and swam, snorkeled and celebrated with everyone. But there was this gray cloud over my head all the time. I couldn't seem to thoroughly enjoy myself no matter how hard I tried. I knew how amazing this vacation was and how much I should be loving it, yet I couldn't. I just couldn't.

I suppose that's what living with bipolar really is for me-- being aware of how I should feel, yet feeling the opposite. I guess I am lucky that I am usually aware of what I am missing when my illness strikes. Others may not be.

After this vacation, I've learned that the waves of bipolar illness can crash any shore, even in paradise.