Mental Health Recovery : A Marathon Not a Sprint

mental health monday

When I compare each year to the previous one, I measure our progress and remind myself that the road to recovery is a marathon not a sprint. After three months of three separate hospitalizations from the fall of 2010 through the spring of 2011, Drew continued to deny his diagnosis and refuse medication. For about three years, we spun our wheels, going nowhere fast, and our family bus broke down. In the summer of 2014, Drew agreed, as a condition for continuing to live at home, to see a psychologist weekly. In the fall of 2014, with some arm twisting of another kind, Kody accompanied me to the 12-week NAMI Family-to-Family class. By January of 2015 with encouragement from his psychologist Dr. Hanna (which I may or may not have instigated), Drew started a NAMI class of his own, 10-weeks, Peer-to-Peer. The wheels on the bus went round and round and forward once more.

Each Tuesday night, I drove Drew to his class held at a hospital about fifteen miles from home. He attended. I waited. I always had papers to grade or books to read, and I tried my best to converse with Drew during the drive time. Receiving a weekly e-mail reminder about the class, I had anticipated the class when the attendees would tell their stories. I wondered how Drew would describe the last few years of his life, especially as I consider my own version. I wish I could accurately convey Drew’s perspective, but I can only give you mine: a story of a mother’s heartbreak and hope in the face of mental illness, my story of helping Drew navigate the rocky road to recovery and trusting that the pavement will smooth out ahead. It hasn’t been easy for any of us, but Drew NEVER talks about it, living an isolated, non-communicative existence in his bedroom day after day, leaving mainly to eat and smoke. No one would choose a life like that.

Our daughter Lauren, away at college, said, “Drew is just being a brat. He could work if he wanted.” She missed the Family-to-Family class, but even Kody, who attended, thinks Drew can do much more, too. It’s not that I don’t think Drew can do more, but making him do more is a full-time job, and I work full-time already.

While going to my own NAMI class, one of the teachers e-mailed a CNN video link of Anderson Cooper taking part in a schizophrenia simulation experiment. He wore headphones to simulate hearing voices while going on with his day.  Please click the link for a better understanding: http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2014/06/09/anderson-takes-part-in-an-experiment-to-help-understand-how-people-live-with-mental-illness/  Uncomfortable, right? I can’t imagine not being able to shut the voices up.

I cling to the hope that through the doctor and the classes and forward momentum that Drew will gain insight on brain disorders and that he will come to an acceptance of his “new normal” and that he will seek further help and that he will someday contribute to society and that maybe one day he will enjoy and maintain relationships once more. These are the things that I wanted to say to Drew during our car rides to and from Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas for his Tuesday night classes. After the Tell-Your-Story class, I said, “I saw the e-mail that said you all would be sharing your stories tonight. How did it go?”

“I just listened.” And that was that. Our conversation usually consisted of Drew asking, “Will you turn up the volume?” And when I did, he would usually say, “Not that loud. Turn it down.” Pause. “A bit,” followed by a “Thanks for driving, Mom.”

And after class, I would usually ask, “Are you hungry?”

And he would say, “I could go for some burgers.” And we would drive through McDonalds, and he would say, “Thank you. I love you, Mom.” And I appreciate that. I really do. I just want so much more for him.

One night after class, Drew approached the car and asked if we could give Rachel a ride to Rowlett, a Dallas suburb, not exactly on the way home, probably forty-five minutes to an hour out of the way. As much as I didn’t see Rachel’s transportation situation as my problem, Drew wanted to help out his new friend, and I want Drew to have friends, so at the end of an already long day, I consented.

Rachel talked up a storm, but I welcomed the break to the typical silence. She told me about her family, her high-school experience, her church, her job. I wondered about her diagnosis, not that it matters. Her cheery, chatty demeanor just differed so dramatically from Drew’s. On the way toward Rachel’s house, her mom called to say she could meet us at Collin Creek Mall, which would just be a stop on our usual way home. Around 9:30, we pulled into the empty JCPenney’s parking lot about five minutes ahead of Rachel’s mom.

Drew said, “Will you pop the trunk?” and opened the car door to exit without waiting for a response. I popped the trunk, and he grabbed his backpack, the one banished from inside my car due to the odoriferous glass water pipe inside. He loaded his organic Natural American Spirit tobacco and smoked in the darkness.

Alone with Rachel, I took my opportunity to ask, “So Rachel, does Drew talk much during class?”

“No, he’s pretty quiet and doesn’t say a lot.” She paused, “He doesn’t laugh at the same things that the rest of us do.”

His affect is off, the neuro-psychiatrist’s words echoed in my thoughts. “Hmm, I just wondered because when I ask him about class, he doesn’t tell me much either.” I hesitated, “He doesn’t really believe he has an illness, so he refuses to take medicine even though he has been hospitalized a few times.”

“Maybe he hasn’t found the right one.”

“Yeah, he has tried quite a few, and he was doing really well on one, but he said he had a seizure, so he quit taking it. A doctor told me he didn’t think Drew would know he had had a seizure, so we don’t know for sure, but now Drew believes that the medicine is poison.”

I felt myself overstepping my bounds. After all, I had just met Rachel. I didn’t really know much about her relationship with Drew other than he had gone to dinner at her house once.  I wasn’t sure if she might say anything to Drew about this conversation, and I didn’t want to make him mad, a motif in our lives.  Then she asked, “What was the medicine?”

I had to think. The “seizure” had been four years earlier, and while I tried to remember the name of the medication, Rachel said, “I think Andrew has some anger issues.”

That’s interesting, I thought, wondering how his anger had manifested itself in front of Rachel.  “Yes, I think you are right.  He does see a therapist,” I said, and we sat in silence for a moment, my mind racing. Do Dr. Hanna and Drew discuss his anger?  I silently cursed HIPAA. I should call Dr. Hanna and mention the hole Drew punched in his bedroom wall and the one in our kitchen pantry door and the yelling that sometimes occurs behind the closed door of his bedroom.  Even though Dr. Hanna can’t discuss Drew with me, he’ll listen. He always doesAbilify. I had remembered the medication.  “Abilify.  That’s the one that made the biggest difference.”

“Oh,” Rachel said as if she didn’t have any personal experience with Abilify. She went on to tell me about her medicine and how it worked and how her “commanding voices” had gone away.  “To be honest, I kind of miss my angel a little bit. Just the parts where he would touch me gently and kiss me on the forehead and things like that—the nice parts, not the horrible chains and fire and things like that.”

“Right?” That was my mono-syllabic, nonsensical response cut short as headlights flashed in my rear view mirror, and Drew opened the car door, rejoining us.

Rachel’s mom had arrived, and Rachel said, “Thanks so much for the ride. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Byers. See you next week, Andrew.”

Alone with Drew again, I said, “I like Rachel.”

He responded with silence. I waited.

“She likes to talk.” There was another pregnant pause. “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah, I could go for some burgers.”

marathon not a sprint

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How NAMI Saved My Marriage

nami-logo-blue

I admit without shame that I manipulated Kody into coming with me to a twelve-week, two-and-a-half hour Wednesday night Family-to-Family NAMI class, an education program for family members of adults living with mental illness. After four years of dysfunctional family interactions and an escalation of discordance at home, I started attending a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group, where people strongly encouraged me to attend what they called a “life-changing” class.  In my area, the class is only offered twice a year, and I needed immediate change, so I called to reserve my spot, explaining, “I’m hoping to bring my husband, but I’m not sure he will commit to twelve weeks.”

On the other end of the line, Mary, replied somewhat-conspiratorially, “Just bring him to the first class. You will share materials, and hopefully, he will keep coming.”

After registering, I text-messaged Kody’s cousin Misti, who lives in the metroplex. Recently, she had come to a jewelry party at my house that I co-hosted with Kody’s younger sister Gianna, the accessory queen and party planner, visiting us from Oklahoma. Drew stayed in his room throughout the event, and once everyone else had gone home, Misti asked, “How’s Drew?”

“Well, he’s in his room. About four years ago, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, so he avoids people. He doesn’t believe that he is sick, so he won’t take medicine, and we’re trying to figure out how to help him.”

“Really?” she said wide-eyed and shaking her head back and forth with an understood No. “I’ve never known anyone that’s happened to, but…” I censor this conversation because Kody’s cousin has an intimate relationship with someone hospitalized at that precise moment with a similar condition, and her story isn’t mine to tell. When I sent Misti information about the class, she texted back, “Thank you. Thank you. I’ll be there.”

I roped Kody into coming with me to the twelve-week NAMI Family-to Family class by saying, “Your cousin is coming. Just come to the first meeting, and if you decide not to come back after that, the registration lady told me it was okay.”  Meanwhile and in my defense, I forwarded Kody information via e-mail about the class, including location, times, and dates.  I guess he never read through that message because during the week-one class when he discovered the length of his captivity—from 6:30 until 9:00 that night, his blood seemed to boil beneath his skin. At any moment steam might’ve erupted from his ears and nostrils as Tom and Linda, our facilitators, began a hard-sell on the twelve-week commitment. By the way, Misti no-showed.

That first night included self-introductions, brief descriptions of our loved ones and identification of long-term goals. Tom created a T-chart on the dry erase board and said, “In the long term, is your goal for your loved one independence or functional dependence?”

When my turn came, I had two minutes to introduce myself and tell the story of Drew leaving for college on a full music scholarship and returning saying, “Something is wrong with my brain.” The story included a handful of hospitalizations and non-compliance with meds and not being able to keep a job and communication difficulties.  I concluded with, “I want Drew to be independent.”   Much of our recent household drama included heated words of Drew being twenty-four, needing to work, needing to contribute, needing to move out. Drew’s non-response was an issue. From the time my kids were young, I never considered any other option for them besides independence. I wanted nothing more than for Drew to have his own life and relationships and happiness beyond his bedroom walls, the walls that confined him most of the time.

Kody spoke next, exceeding his two minutes, explaining in more detail the difficulty and discomfort of living in his own home. His conclusion, however, shocked me: “Functional dependence.” During the previous year or so, Kody and I battled as foes concerning Drew and his illness and his capabilities. My Momma Bear instinct protected Drew and sided with him and made him sandwiches and did his laundry, to the detriment of my marriage. Together the three of us were the epitome of the dysfunctional family, and I had never considered the possibility of “functional dependence.” Already this class had changed my life.

The next week Kody met me once more at the church that held the class. An air of underlying hostility accompanied him. He skipped Week Three due to “work” but dragged himself back for the remainder of the twelve-week course. Together our perspectives shifted as we studied and discussed in a group setting the following topics:

Class 1: Emotional reactions to mental illness and goals

Class 2: Understanding schizophrenia and mood episodes, coping, and keeping files

Class 3: Types and sub-types of mood disorders

Class 4: About the brain

Class 5: Problem solving and setting limits

Class 6: Medication and treatment issues

Class 7: Understanding the patient

Class 8: Communication

Class 9: Self-Care

Class 10: Recovery

Class 11: Advocacy

Class 12: Certification Party

Before the NAMI class, I thought I knew practically everything I needed to know about mental illness. In four years, I had researched and read a handful of books and many-an-article. I watched Ted Talks and YouTube videos.  Not to mention, I lived with Drew.  However, the first six classes provided a plethora of new information, and the last six classes addressed the emotional side for patients and their families. In four years, I hadn’t considered how Drew might be feeling day in and day out, and this perspective changed my life.

Over the three-month period, I encountered complications as usual in speaking openly about Drew’s illness without my throat splotching red or my eyes swimming, Kody’s contributions became less angry, and together we learned more about Drew, biological brain disorders, and empathy. Each Wednesday night after class, we stopped for sushi and sake bombs and decompression, reflecting about the topics of the evening. Kody became my friend once more, and I cherish the memories of those Wednesday night dates.

Toward the end of the twelve-week program, another mom in the class approached me during a break and said, “It’s been really great to watch your husband’s transformation.” She leaned in and continued, “I know you had to trick him into coming.”  Almost four years after Drew’s schizophrenia diagnosis, a miraculous and radical change had occurred in our ability to cope with the illness and communicate with our son, and we owe that to NAMI.

General Mental Health Facts

Mental Health Awareness

Mental Health Awareness: A Journey Towards Help, Hope, and Understanding

In recent years I’ve claimed to be a mental health advocate…except that I’ve skirted the details of my story, which is like a raw wound, easily agitated and painful. May is Mental Health Month, AKA Mental Health Awareness Month, and so I remember another May day, eight years ago, and the beginning of our journey towards help, hope, and understanding.

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My cell phone vibrated, and I glanced down.  The text message popping up from my son Drew said, “There’s something wrong with my brain.”

I don’t remember my response to the text I will never forget.  One, I had stopped for happy hour with my husband Kody after work; two, this happened a couple of cell phones ago, the text thread long gone.  I can only imagine that I probably replied along the lines of—Let’s talk. I’ll be home after awhile.  

Kody and I didn’t rush home with concern.  We arrived home later that evening to find Drew sealed away behind his closed bedroom door, lights off, as if to say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”  The discussion waited as did we.

The next morning, I suggested breakfast out.  Kody, Drew, and I drove to a neighborhood diner.  Amid the cadence of background conversations, the clinks of silverware to plate contact, and the aroma of good coffee, we sat in awkward silence while waiting for food and Drew to provide extra details. The sunlight streamed through the blinds of the windows as breakfast arrived, and Kody said, “Son, we wanted to talk with you.  What’s going on?”

Drew’s eyes narrowed as he stabbed his omelet, “Don’t you think there is something wrong with me?  You don’t remember the time I ran into the fence?  You don’t remember that big lump on my head?”  I didn’t remember the fence incident, and neither did Kody.  Drew’s tone implied we were idiots for forgetting, and he told his story as if he had said these words a million times.  “I stole some beer at Walmart, and someone caught me.  So I dropped the beer and ran out of the store as fast as I could.  I ran full-speed, head-first into a fence.  Full speed.  I had a huge lump.”  He touched the right side of his fore head with five fingertips, indicating the location and size of the injury.  “You don’t remember?”

The beer theft/head injury had occurred two years earlier, Drew’s senior year of high school.  I tried to visualize the episode.  There are no fences directly outside of our neighborhood Walmart, so I couldn’t picture him running full speed into a fence.  If he had escaped through the front door, he would have had to run a considerable distance before encountering the said fence. My thoughts raced faster than I could ever recall Drew running.  How could anyone run full speed and oblivious of an oncoming fence?  I didn’t remember the big lump, but that was during a time when I didn’t see much of Drew. Possibly the lump was bigger in Drew’s mind and I had overlooked a smaller lump, or maybe my memory just fails.  I searched my now-guilt-ridden brain, recollecting an enormous lump during sixth grade from a no-helmets-football-game-gone-wrong with the neighbors across the street.  Then my thoughts returned to Drew’s first question, ‘Don’t you think something is wrong with me?’

Deep down, yes. I knew.  Something wasn’t quite right.  Long ago I stuffed the notion down and out of sight. Now Drew knew, even though he wouldn’t elaborate. In Drew’s mind, his two-year-old head injury lingered, and time called for a doctor.

At home for the summer, Drew had spent the past year at West Texas A and M, where he had auditioned for the orchestra, received a full ride as a music major, and studied cello performance. He scored high enough on the English CLEP (College Level Examination Program) to receive credit, his SAT scores rated high enough to waive his college math class, yet he struggled academically.  Whenever I called, he always answered his phone, alone in his dorm room, our conversations, always brief.  I convinced myself that my Drew was an artist, just a little different, the social withdrawal a phase. Maybe drugs were to blame, or possibly he had ADD. However, Drew adamantly believed that he suffered from brain damage.  I could count the number of times he had seen a doctor on one hand, and I could not recall him requesting to see a doctor ever, until that morning.

So began our journey of finding a doctor to identify the problem that Drew had trouble explaining.  Our family doctor, Dr. Terrazas, spoke with Drew and me for approximately fifteen minutes before diagnosing him as bi-polar and writing him a prescription for Lithium.  I wondered if I had led her to that conclusion, and Drew, not satisfied with her conclusion, wanted further testing.  Dr. Terrazas referred us to a neurologist, Dr. Grider, who ordered a CAT (computerized axial tomography) scan.  Weeks later at the follow-up appointment, the images of Drew’s brain revealed no damage, and the neurologist had no answers.  Drew doubted both the bi-polar diagnosis as well as the CAT scan results and pressed forward for further testing.  The neurologist referred us to a neuro-psychiatrist, a Dr. Affatati. The appointment, another month away.

Meanwhile, I furtively observed my son, who confined himself to his room and never spoke on the phone or went out with friends.  He lacked emotion but laughed now and then for no reason at all.  When I attempted a conversation, the dialogue fell flat.  When Drew began the conversation, the topics loomed beyond my comprehension.  He sometimes nodded off in an upright position.  Sometimes his face twitched, his eyes or his mouth, involuntarily.  Drew walked in circles and stretched in repetitive patterns.  My son had changed before my eyes, yet the quirks had become abruptly apparent.

To break his habit of isolation, Drew and I drove to the Oklahoma panhandle to stay with my parents for a week. After a one-on-one day of golf with his Pop, I remember my dad saying, “Crystal, I think it’s a self-esteem problem.”  My dad’s words didn’t settle well, and all that time grew my fear, the unspeakable certainty of something much bigger.  The appointment with the neuro-psychiatrist was still a week away.

On the drive home, we made a quick stop in Canyon, Texas at the university for Drew to check his mail.  Drew had been home since May, and he insisted on checking his mail in July, looking for a package of sheet music that I had sent in February. At the time, this did not register as odd. A grandmotherly lady with horn-rimmed glasses and gray hairs pulled back into a bun at the university post office kindly checked and double checked for the package. “I’m sorry there is nothing here for you.”

Drew maintained composure, but upon exiting the building an air of agitation enveloped him. “That lady was racist,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I replied having no clue why he would say that. “How was she racist?”

“She discriminated against me.” I heard the edge in his voice through gritted teeth, followed by a deep exhale.  “Can I drive?”

I collected my calm and said, “Of course,” hoping a drive on the open road would distract Drew from the dark cloud overshadowing his mood.

The highway home stretched and yawned for three hundred and seventy-six miles as my mild-mannered, soft-spoken son transformed into a bizarre, frantic person behind the wheel.  “Are you racist?” He asked, more accusation than question, his sideways glance revealed suspicion.

Anyone who knows me would think the question strange.  I teach high school English at a diverse suburban school, and I love my students.  I breathed in. I exhaled. I shook my head back and forth. “No, I’m not racist, Drew.”

He raged from one accusation to the next, as if someone held the remote, flipping channels.  “Read your wrung.  What does that mean?  We sped down the highway.

“What?” I thought I had misheard him.

“Read. Your. Wrung.”  Drew slowed the statement, but not the car.  “That’s what you said to Mimi.  She’s a witch.  You’re both witches.”

I braced myself in my seat, knowing without doubt that we had a major problem—not brain damage—a psychological, perhaps psychiatric problem. I didn’t know the difference. He had heard me cast a spell? “No, Drew, we are not witches.”

For six solid hours, Drew expressed suspicions, delusions, and perplexingly incomprehensible thoughts. In my head, we veered full speed into oncoming traffic. I wanted to text my husband, but there was nothing he could do and no textable explanation.  I did not in any way want to heighten Drew’s hysterics.   So, for six solid hours, I prayed to God for our peace, our safety, and our lives.

Once home, Drew retreated to his bedroom, and I pulled Kody into ours and attempted a condensed version of events in hushed tones. None of it made any sense. Explanations failed.  I remember Kody saying, “What the fuck is this shit he is pulling?”  How could I make him understand when I couldn’t even understand?  I sobbed into my wet pillow that night.

The sun rose to a new day, a Sunday.  I felt God’s pull, and I knew that someone at church would pray with me for my family.  Kody held fast to the I’m going to get this thing taken care of mentality, and he confronted Drew head on, “What is your problem?  Why are you doing this to Mom?”  I heard their voices in the living room from my location in the master bathroom.  Kody didn’t understand.  Drew’s behavior wasn’t calculated or malicious.

I eavesdropped from the hallway before entering the living room, where I witnessed the Kody-Drew face-off.  Drew spoke of a grocery cart.  I walked in mid-explanation.  He was either pushing the cart or sitting in it while someone pushed—in the cafeteria while away at school, “People were lined up on both sides of me cheering and screaming,” he said with the same panicky road-trip tone from the day before, stressing the words cheering and screaming. Disconnected thoughts spewed forth, “And when I watch TV, let’s say, I’ve just been reading about comets, then there is something on TV about comets.  It’s like the TV is communicating with me.”  Kody’s eyes flashed at me with a dawning realization.  Reality had slipped from Drew’s grasp like sand.

I left the scene, Kody and his helplessness seared in my mind, father and son alone at an impasse, tears dropping single file into my lap as I drove to Chase Oaks Church.  I entered the building, hiding behind my glasses, hoping to blend into the crowd without anyone noticing the puffed anguish around my eyes. I located a seat amid singing voices while the band played, and when I opened my mouth to sing, the floodgates gave way once more, the torrent of tears, a mix of sadness and fear.  Then came the song I needed to hear.

Everyone needs compassion,

Love that’s never failing;

Let mercy fall on me.

Everyone needs forgiveness,

The kindness of a Saviour;

The Hope of nations.

Saviour, He can move the mountains,

My God is Mighty to save,

He is Mighty to save.

Forever, Author of salvation,

He rose and conquered the grave,

Jesus conquered the grave.

So take me as You find me,

All my fears and failures,

Fill my life again.

I give my life to follow

Everything I believe in,

Now I surrender.

I don’t remember the sermon that morning, but I heard God’s message in the music. God will take my fears, and with Him, there’s hope. Everyone needs compassion. Drew. Kody. Me. Our daughter Lauren, our recent high school graduate dealing with problems of her own and oblivious to Drew’s latest development.

The service concluded with the usual announcement: “Each week we have a group of people waiting at the front to care for you, listen to you, and pray for you.”  For the first time, I found myself drawn to the front of the sanctuary like a moth to the light.  Several people waited there volunteering their time for people like me who needed a shoulder and compassion that day.  I approached a woman with warm brown eyes and an encouraging smile that reminded me of my deceased Granny. We introduced ourselves, and I discovered this woman taught high school English in my district, except at the alternative school.  She held my hands as I told Drew’s story, unsuccessful in my attempt to remain dry eyed.  I would give anything for a recording of that conversation. I would press play over and over to hear her words of comfort and encouragement and prayers for our family, but I will never forget the peace that washed over me or the scripture she gave, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).  Back at home, the rest of the day passed peacefully. Drew retreated to the solitude of his room.

The next day Kody left for work, promising to research help options.  At home, my fears once more grappled with my prayers.  Fears of Drew’s future in a strait jacket vs. prayers to God for power and love and a sound mind for all of us.

Mid-morning my phone rang, and my husband said, “I found a mobile crisis unit for mental health emergencies.  I called them, and they are sending counselors to the house at 2:00.  I’ll be home then.”

Kody took the afternoon off, showing up ahead of time, and together we stood before the picture window in the formal living room, watching and waiting.  Before long, two counselors arrived in a Ford Escort out front.  We hadn’t mentioned our expected guests to Drew. A bearded man probably in his early forties and a younger dark-haired woman holding a folder ambled up the sidewalk, and I opened the door with a hushed, “Thank you for coming,” as they approached the house.

After the introductions, I walked back to Drew’s room and knocked, “Son, you have some visitors here to talk to you.”  Drew opened his door, didn’t ask questions, and followed me to the living room.  Kody had provided background information via phone earlier.

“Hi Drew.  My name is Tommy, and this is Vita.”  On cue, she nodded her head and gave a closed-mouth smile and a wave.  “Your parents invited us here because they have some concerns.  I understand that you’ve had a CAT scan and that you have an appointment for another opinion.  Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Okay,” Drew said while shooting a glance at me and his dad.

Tommy communicated with Drew in a comforting way, better than the family doctor and the neurologist that we had seen so far, and he completed a thorough mental health assessment.  Tommy knew the questions to ask, Drew opened up, and the sidekick Vita silently transcribed the meeting.  Tommy asked about drug usage and alcohol, and Drew admitted, “I’ve smoked pot and done some mushrooms.  Once I smoked with some people at school, and my arms went up in the air like this.”  Drew lifted his arms above his head to show us, his hands hung limp at the wrists, “and they were frozen there. They were frozen for a while, like hours, and everyone was laughing. I think whatever we were smoking might have been laced with something, but I don’t know. I don’t drink though.”

Tommy said, “Smoking pot can sometimes trigger a person to see or hear things that aren’t there.”  His tone was matter-of-fact and non-condescending.  He spoke as if this type of thing happened to people all the time.  I remember him asking, “Drew, have you experienced a recent death of anyone close to you?”

Drew broke down and wept, “My best friend Ryan.”  Drew and Ryan played soccer together on the Stars in kindergarten, and although they went to different elementary schools, their team stayed together through third grade, and they attended middle school and high school together.  I recollect a handful of play dates when they were younger, but as they grew older, they ran in separate groups. Ryan’s death was a heartbreaking accident and tragedy of appalling proportions. As long as we had known the Woolf family, they loved going to their lake house.  Ryan and his dad Don went cliff diving over the extended Fourth of July weekend. Ryan jumped and never resurfaced.  Don jumped in to save him, but he didn’t reappear either, a tragedy of appalling proportions. Our hearts still break for our friend Pat, Ryan’s mom and Don’s wife, and Ryan’s brother Cameron. This happened the summer of 2007 before Drew’s senior year, three years before this interview with Tommy and Vita.

Tommy probably spent about an hour with Drew in our living room, and Drew’s demeanor calmed from the previous days.  As the session ended, Tommy provided names of therapists for Drew as well as the names of a few psychiatrists.  The crisis had been averted for the moment, and Drew wasn’t interested in any therapy, so I continued to count the days to the highly-anticipated appointment with the neuro-psychiatrist.

After the encouraging experience with the mobile counselor, the appointment with the neuro-psychiatrist disappointed.  Kody and I sat in on the session expecting explanations, but the doctor was quick and direct.  He spent a brief time alone with Drew before meeting with Kody and me alone.  Looking back, I wouldn’t dream of seeing a doctor without a notepad, writing down everything and asking questions when needing clarification, but at the time, I was a rookie. New game. I remember explaining to the doctor, “Drew’s speech patterns have changed, he’s more monotone now, and he rarely smiles, but then he laughs randomly—like an inside joke with himself.”

The neuropsychiatrist reflected and paused, “His affect is off.”  He offered no diagnosis but used the word “psychosis” and spoke of a “thought disorder” to label Drew’s recent episodes. “I want you to follow up with Dr. Watson.” He wrote down his name and the name of the clinic.  “He’s a psychiatrist.”  The appointment came to an abrupt and anti-climactic end.  Kody drove back to work. Drew and I returned home. I plopped down on the couch, opened my laptop, and Googled:

Thought disorder:  a term used to describe incomprehensible language, either in speech or writing, which is presumed to reflect thinking. There are different types. For example, language may be difficult to understand if it switches quickly from one unrelated idea to another or if it is very delayed at reaching its goal or if words are inappropriately strung together resulting in gibberish.

I lifted my eyes from the screen and stared at the ivory paint on the wall ahead.  The Wikipedia definition described the gibberish of read your wrung and the onslaught of disconnected ideas during the recent road trip.

I resumed my investigation, typing:  affect.  I found definitions connected to the experience of feelings and emotions and continued searching.

Flat affect:  A severe reduction in emotional expressiveness. People with depression and schizophrenia often show flat affect.  A person with schizophrenia may not show the signs of normal emotion, perhaps may speak in a monotonous voice, have diminished facial expressions, and appear extremely apathetic.  Also known as blunted affect.

Depression, okay.  I thought.  Schizophrenia?  Really?  I considered the MedicineNet.com definition as I reflected on Drew’s daily demeanor.

Again, I flashed back to the road trip.  I had flipped the radio station to classical in hopes the music would calm him, and Drew started giggling at the sound of the staccato piano.  I remember asking, “What’s so funny?”

He said, “It was a hippopotamus in a tutu tip toeing to the music.”  The thought was fleeting, sandwiched between hysterical, unrelated ideas.  I caught myself staring at the flash of a few specks of dust dancing in thin air, sparkling in the shards of sunlight streaming through the window. I continued Googling.

Psychosis: a loss of contact with reality, usually including false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations).

My laptop was hot, and so was my lap.  On the National Institute of Health’s website, produced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, I found a definition for psychosis below the subtitle Major Depression with Psychotic Features.  I wondered if Drew had major depression.  Why did he spend so much time in his room alone?  He rarely smiled a genuine smile.  I thought about the witch and racist accusations. I remembered the grocery cart episode in the cafeteria at school. Again, staring at my screen but focused on nothing, I found myself shaking my head, No.  I closed my laptop and slid it under the couch.

Six months passed, and five doctors later, no one had answers, no one was willing to diagnose.  After the neuro-psychiatrist, Drew saw a regular psychiatrist, who referred us to a psychologist.  We had seen each doctor once and to no avail.

In the middle of our unsuccessful quest for help, Kody, Drew, and I opted for a family night at the movie.  Lauren kept her own agenda.  We decided on Megamind, a computer-animated comedy named after the super-intelligent alien supervillain, who transforms into a superhero.  We arrived late to a packed theater and shrunk into our seats a few rows from the front.  Behind us sat a young mom and a row of little girls, probably around age eight, probably there for a birthday party. In the darkness, we ate popcorn and laughed, and I silently celebrated the moment of normalcy.

Once home, Drew spouted, “I guess you didn’t see that lady sitting behind me blowing cocaine into my face?”

“You mean the lady sitting with those little girls?”

“Yeah, you didn’t see that?”

“No, Drew, I didn’t see that.”

That night drugs continued to seep through the vents of his bedroom.  Because of the toxic air, Drew couldn’t stay in his room, and he checked himself into the hospital for the first time.  He packed a bag, and I drove.  I’m not sure he knew that it was a psychiatric hospital, but he wanted more than anything to escape the poison of his bedroom.  Within the next couple of days came the long-awaited, much-anticipated diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia.  By this time we had witnessed text-book examples of symptoms and read enough to understand the possibilities.

Even though Drew initially said, “There’s something wrong with my brain,” for the next five years he denied the diagnosis and refused medication.  He preferred brain damage to schizophrenia.  I don’t blame him.  Stigma has a firm hold on mental illnesses.  Without open discussions about mental health issues, people—patients and families—tend to feel shame, sometimes hiding, sometimes denying the truth.  Medication non-compliance remains a common problem among patients with brain disorders.  The paranoia causes trust issues, and Drew believed for many years that the medicine is poison.  Without medication, patients often become psychotic again and cycle back into the hospital.  Consequently, Drew was hospitalized three different times for approximately three months of his life within the first year of his diagnosed brain disorder.

I’ve never known a parent of a child with cancer to hide the illness from friends, family, and co-workers, but in the beginning, that’s what I did. I couldn’t talk about it. For me, it wasn’t shame. It was grief. It took years for me to be able to discuss details with my closest friends and family without breaking down. I still cry for Drew. Kody and Lauren do, too. Our family has lost much, but Drew has lost the most: his former self, relationships, and ambitions. The pain hangs like a dark, heavy cloud.  During that first year of hospitalizations, it took all I had to put on a happy face all day long in front of my high school students. Many times I would run into someone who knows Drew and would ask about him. Many times I would say something like: “Drew’s okay.  He’s not in school.  He’s trying to figure out his life.”  Somehow this explanation seemed simpler.  I didn’t say it out of secrecy.  This insidious brain disorder had hijacked my son’s life.  Many times, I would make it out of the grocery store or out of school and into my car just in time for the cloud to burst. I would pound the steering wheel with my fists and sob over the substantial interference of the illness on Drew’s life, on all our lives. As I’m coming to terms with the new normal, part of me thinks that maybe my job is to fight the stigma and to help others understand that there are illnesses of the body and illnesses of the mind.  Both are equally real and often unavoidable. There is no shame in illness, and I continue to pray—for health, hope, and understanding.  And I believe in miracles.

Mental Illness

People continue to ask, “How is Drew?” So I’ll be dedicating my May posts to mental health awareness and the millions who silently suffer from brain disorders.

Postage Stamp Turned Spa

Overall, a downsized home has worked for us. Upon relocation to Houston, Kody and I purchased a fixer upper. We opened the kitchen to the dining and living spaces by knocking down four walls, efficiently adding space for storage and food prep and entertaining. Our newly acquired ability to watch the big screen TV while cooking was amazing…for about four months…until Hurricane Harvey came along and literally rained on our parade. The bathrooms had remained on our makeover list, and let me tell you—it’s so much more fun to say goodbye to the old and hello to the new rather than blowing money on more new to replace the damaged-beyond-repair new. 

The master bathroom, true to the 1960’s, was scarcely larger than a postage stamp. Notice the past tense. Behind the original shower wall stood a hallway closet. Past tense once more. We robbed Peter (our closet) to pay Paul (our shower), and voila, our 30” x 30” shower grew to 42” x 6 ½‘ with a built-in bench. Our vanity space grew a couple of feet as well. In our last few homes, we’ve kept future home owners in mind. We don’t plan to live here forever, but we’ll fix it and love it, and the TLC will show when we eventually sell. No doubt a future owner will appreciate the maximized space, the modernized amenities, and the minimized commute.

As a collector of inspiration and ideas, my favorite hunting grounds for design include restaurants and their restrooms, perfect since I’ve been kitchen-less for more almost eight months, not to mention another six for the original kitchen remodel.

Did you know that subway tile dominates the entire world?  Seriously, look around. Echoing the style of brick, it’s a safe aesthetic bet, inexpensive, too. When I need more specific designs, I search the Googler and Houzz and Pinterest. With ideas in my head and phone, I drive to Floor and Décor, stroll leisurely, and keep my eyes peeled.

The Kitchen Before
This is the old-new kitchen. The new-new kitchen will be nearly identical with different floors. We are currently missing the lower cabinet to the left of the refrigerator. The re-ordering took four weeks. Did you know that you can’t install countertops without cabinets below?

I like a flow from kitchen to bathroom. A little matchy. Not too much matchy. For the kitchen, we chose gray shaker style cabinets, black for the island, with a white 4” x 10” subway tile backsplash and white and gray marble-look, quartzite countertops. We warmed the space with oak floors and open maple shelves to match the structural ceiling beam. Then that pesky Harvey flooded our floors and lower cabinets beyond repair, and then the walls came tumbling down. However, eight months later, walls and cabinets, floors and baseboards, doors and casings are re-appearing, not completely installed or painted, but I see them waiting patiently (which is more than I can say for myself). The soon-to-be-completed house is looking like home again. I often hear, “How soon will you be able to move back in?”

Good question—one that I’ve been answering wrong for a couple of months now. “Hopefully, by the end of March…hopefully, by the end of April…hopefully two more weeks…surely sometime in May.” The hallway bath gray shaker vanity is on backorder (unless my contractor ordered it right after I asked him about the status yesterday). Once installed, the marble-look quartzite will top the vanity with a backsplash to compliment the tub, which is finished (minus the fixtures). 

Hallway Bath
The white subway tile carries on the theme from the kitchen. Horizontal bands of iridescent blues anchor the niche to surrounding walls.

One day while on a Floor and Décor expedition, a new tile spoke to me—an 8” x 20” vintage mint green subway tile with a wavy texture, priced at $1.89 per square foot. This tile evokes the days of my childhood at my grandmother’s 1950’s home—her hallway bathroom, vintage mint green. Kody accompanied me that day. I picked up one tile, cradling it like a baby, remembering my youth, forging forward in search of an accent for a niche and coordinating tile for the shower floor. For the niche, we found a sparkly, diamond-shaped glass mosaic with silvers and baby blues and beiges. For the shower floor, we found a river flat pebble stone mosaic with muted tones of green and grays, off-whites and beiges. I had a vision in my head, inspiration in my phone, and Kody liked it. We agreed. Done deal. You see what we did there? Larger-sized subway, different color, definite flow.

Master Bath
To be grouted and the hanging light, temporary. I’m betting a plumber won’t come out until our sinks are installed. Did I mention we are waiting on vanities?

I can’t say that we never gave the vintage green a second thought. At Floor and Décor and with future buyers in mind, the hue felt a little risky. At home and on the shower walls, the current Byers feel proud of the choice. Postage stamp turned spa. Reflective of the 1960’s. Color and glitter? Yes, please. If only it were grouted, fixtures and shower door installed, ready to go, and me—living there. I remind myself to be grateful and not to wish my life away. The house will be completed in time. I need to start using that line when someone asks, “How soon will you be able to move back in?”

“The house will be completed in time.” See, I’m practicing.

For now, I dream—of living at home once more, new from top to bottom, of starting each day in my favorite shower ever, a fresh and clean beginning in so many ways. Until then, life goes on. Postage stamp, spa, or La Quinta, I’ll still be fresh and clean, and I can choose my attitude wherever I go or wherever I may be.  

the present

Lessons from an Alabama Rain

Langston Hughes Rain
From “April Rain Song” by Langston Hughes

As a soft April rain kisses Houston, I recollect another cloudburst or two, one in particular. An Alabama Rain, singing me a lullaby, eleven years ago.

*****

I stepped off the plane in Mobile with my friend Martha. As we descended the escalator to claim our luggage, our friend Mona waited, waving from where she stood next to the carousel. Through the airport windows, dark clouds covered the Alabama sky, and raindrops fell. With bags in hand, we dashed from the airport to the car, the rain drenching us all, our spirits remaining high and dry. However, the rain was relentless throughout our five-day stay.  The three of us, Martha, Mona, and I, went out to eat in the rain, we shopped in the rain, and just hoping the sun might show its shining face, we drove by the beach in the rain.

One day after shopping in picturesque downtown Fairhope, we hopped back into the car and Mona said, “I wanna take ya’ll to this new little country store between here and home.  The two girls who opened it are too cute, and so is their store.”

At the store, a two-story, clap-board house with wrap-around porch, nestled amid enormous Live Oaks and backing to Mobile Bay, we met the owners and browsed. With a note of Southern charm, one of the ladies said, “We were thinkin’ about havin’ a wine-tastin’.  Would ya’ll like a glass of wine?”  I couldn’t refuse hospitality like that, and neither could my friends. With beverages in hand, we moved outside to the covered front porch to sit a spell and watch the gentle rain.

About that time, a precious, tiny black puppy, pranced up on petite ballerina feet, flipped-up tail wagging, collar connected to a leash held by her foster dad. We admired the cuteness, and the man struck up a conversation. “This little girl was found walking in the rain,” he said, “so we named her Rain. I’ve kept her for the past week, and she’s a good girl, but I have three dogs. These ladies here at the store are going to take her picture and put her up on their bulletin board to help me find her a home.”

Meanwhile, I picked up the eight-pound, eight-month-old Chihuahua/terrier mix, and she licked my face. Martha laughed, “Crystal, I think you need that dog.” She continued, “I think you need to fly her back to Dallas….I’ll dog-sit whenever you need me…”

I grew up with a dog, but my kids had missed out on that experience. Drew would be starting his senior year, Lauren would be a sophomore, and she had been angling for a Yorkie. A dog consideration rested on the table, and this one did need a home. No doubt, she was adorable.  So I took the man’s phone number, thinking, If I wake up tomorrow, thinking about that dog, I’m going to take her home.

Well, not only did I wake up the next morning thinking about the dog, I couldn’t sleep at all that night, the puppy on my mind had wiggled its way into my heart.  Martha was right. I needed that dog.

Like Martha said, I brought the puppy home to Texas from Alabama. Evoking my inner Paris Hilton, I carried Rain in my newly-purchased dog purse right onto the plane and stowed her below the seat in front of me. She was that tiny and that perfect.

Rain 2007
My Rain loves the sunny spots, 2007. Look at that face.

The breeze has blown Rain and me from state to state, city to city. Still an excellent traveler, always up for the next adventure, always ready to “go.” Eleven years later, she has survived the rising waters of a hurricane and homelessness more than once. Rain loves hotels, awaits me with her waggity tail each day, and continues to teach me a lesson or two about being happy anywhere, as long as I have my people.

The Storm before the Calm

About once a year for my entire life, I remember my mother saying, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” She had a slew of those sayings, and what I wouldn’t give to hear my mom utter one of them once more.

700x411-FiC-LionLamb

I wish I could ask my precious Mama, “How so?” Her memory fails, as do her words, but I wish so hard for another conversation. I wish so hard to have appreciated her company more. As handy as Google is, I wish so hard for my mom’s spin on everything. “Are we talking about the weather or Jesus? Are we talking about internal lions? I’m asking for a friend.” 

You see. I have this friend named Bristol who has been living in a hotel for seven months. Long story. Natural disaster. House destroyed. She’s over the displacement and the interruption. She doesn’t quite know how much longer for the reconstruction of the aforementioned home, she doesn’t care to talk about the progress or the lack of it, she can’t juggle anything more than her own life, so she has gone semi-mute. You see. My friend Bristol is an introvert who enjoys solitude. Being around people or even talking on the phone drains her energy, and as a teacher, she interacts with over 150 people a day. She feels selfish for her “me” time and guilty for neglecting her relationships as daughter and mother, sister and cousin, niece and aunt, friend and teacher. Bristol would want anyone who knew her to understand the nature of an introspective person. She’s rebuilding—not only her house—but also herself, daily. 

My friend Bristol has a lifelong friend named Cam, who once said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Flowers don’t blossom every day. They have their season.” Bristol has huge respect for Cam and good metaphors. I hope you do, too.  

rose of sharon The Rose of Sharon forever reminds me of Mom and Steinbeck.

As March marches to a halt, I remember once more my mother saying, “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.”  

March

So here’s my spin: a storm brews before each beautiful calm.

Storm Count of Monte Cristo
And by “man,” I believe Dumas meant “woman” as well.

 

We Are III Keys

Beyond our day jobs, Kody and I moonlight as managing partners and co-owners of Three Keys Properties, where we invest in and re-design residential fixer uppers, improving neighborhoods one house at a time. We’re not quite Chip and Jo. Less charming. No shiplap experimentation. No aspirations for our own show. However, Kody finds the deals, I have an eye for aesthetics, and together we grow in our experience.

Why Three Keys? One might ask. Bear with me.

Once upon a time, after nineteen years of marriage, I called movers, packed my bags, and left Kody behind. The details no longer matter. Neither one of us could afford to stay in our home without the other, so sadly we lost our most-favorite house…a spacious kitchen, ample storage, oversized master, en suite garden tub, best shower so far, his and her walk-in closets, a sparkling pool, a relaxing spa…so many things to love including my good friend, neighbor, and walking buddy Martha. 

Within a year of the divorce, I missed “the family,” Kody hung in there as my “friend,” and together we vacationed as “friends” with our kids in the Big Apple. I ❤️ NY, and I returned to my rented Plano townhome realizing that I ❤️ Kody, too. Sometimes time and space and amazing food and art museums and Broadway and romantic cities reveal the importance of people and things once taken for granted. Somewhere in that timeframe, Kody purchased a house in foreclosure, a dilapidated structure with beautiful bones and a sordid history. There may or may not have been a prostitution ring living and working in that house, abundantly wired, for surveillance purposes I presume. I swear. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Somehow we both related to taking on a neighborhood‘s dirty secret, giving it new life and a renewed sense of hope.

I remember sitting on the back patio of my townhome on a clear fall day, the sun shining, and Kody asking for my advice on his new renovation. I flipped through the Sherwin Williams paint color fan deck, searching for the perfect exterior trim color, matching the chip to the metal trim of MY patio furniture—Enduring Bronze. Eventually I assisted in decisions on flooring, granite, and interior paint as well. Somewhere along the way, Kody’s house felt like MY house, so I called movers, packed my bags once more, and moved back in with Kody. Together we lived in sin. (I joke—I’m  pretty sure that God approved of my decision to live with my former husband of nineteen years).

During our live-in-lover stage-of-life, my parents looked forward to their 50th wedding anniversary, and my dad planned a family celebration on a Mediterranean cruise for my mother. The family included my sister and brother, their spouses, and me and my boyfriend Kody. I cannot condense this story with justice, but all of my blabbity-blah leads up to the formation of Three Keys Properties. If an extended, kind-of-cute love story interests you, click the link of The Deep Sapphire Blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Anyway, while on that cruise, outside of Kuşadası, Turkey, near the ruins of Ephesus, Kody and I drank from three sacred water fountains, which, according to our tour guide, symbolized health, wealth, and love. (As an English teacher, I loves me some good symbolism). After quenching my thirst that day, I kissed Kody before writing a little prayer of gratitude to God for my family’s health, wealth, and love. I stuck the little piece of paper into a prayer wall with a million other prayers. And before the end of the day, June 23, 2011, Kody asked me to re-marry him on the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean, ring and all. Ironic, right? I say, “Name it and  claim it.” 

11.11

Side story: Kody had this thing (and still does) about spotting 11:11, mostly on digital clocks, but anywhere really…addresses…telephone numbers…consecutive 11s continued appearing. “It’s 11:11,” he would say, and with or without him, I began noticing the number coincidence, too. Apparently, many people see it, and theories abound on the 11:11 meaning. Google it. Angels are communicating…make a wish…oneness. Once engaged, we chose November 11, 2011, which seemed the obvious date for wedding #2.

11.11.11
11.11.11

A few years after incorporating as one in holy matrimony, we decided to incorporate for residential redevelopment purposes in an official limited liability company. While brainstorming business names, Kody came across the symbolic meaning of three keys. When worn together, they unlock the doors of health, wealth, and love, which we continue to name and claim, not only for us, but for anyone we work with along the way.

Hackamore The foreclosed home we purchased, remodeled head-to-toe, and sold when we relocated to Houston. For a tour, click https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/3600-Hackamore-Ct-Plano-TX-75023/26602059_zpid/

Searcy The 1940’s bungalow we purchased when the previous owner called our number off of our We Buy Houses sign. We added 1000 square feet, with a living room, three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a new laundry room. The new owners were thrilled to have a move-in ready home. For a tour, click https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2527-Searcy-Dr-Dallas-TX-75211/26735308_zpid/

Upon arriving in Houston, we moved into another fixer upper, a mid-century modern home, built in 1960. We consulted with interior designer Jessica Brown, who drew a new blueprint, and then started from scratch to build a network of home specialists–contractors and painters, flooring and brick and foundation guys, window installers and plumbers–in a new city. We stumbled through finding the right contractor to accomplish the goal, tearing down walls and redesigning an open-concept kitchen, living, and dining space while expanding the existing laundry room. After months of construction, two contractors, and phase one completion, we planned to update the bathrooms and create a new outdoor living space when Hurricane Harvey poured trillions of gallons of rain upon the city of Houston, flooding our investment and, just like the board game Trouble, sending us back to start. Slowly but surely, Three Keys Properties makes a comeback. 6″ x 36″ wood look porcelain tile installation close-to complete, an expanded master bath soon-to-be a reality. Photos and home again…in the not-so-distant future.