Rejection Is God’s Protection

Once upon a time, I swallowed the bitter pill of rejection. Okay, probably more than once, but most recently, back in May, I interviewed for a job that seemed ideal. Said interview was a fail.

BACKSTORY:

Having taken the initiative to seek out the English department chair at a well-reputed high school three and a half miles from home via website, I introduced myself as a potential colleague via e-mail. After several pre-interview e-mails back and forth, I had established a rapport and had one foot through the door. I thought. The next thing I knew, I had a date for an interview. An opportunity arose to quit the job I had, so I did, effective at the end of the school year. I felt confident the new job belonged to me. Maybe I should say overconfident.

On the day of the interview, May 9, I taught. Actually, that’s not true. I monitored students. It was a standardized testing day for public schools across Texas. On this particular day, freshmen tested in my classroom, so my sophomore classes took place in an alternate location. At the time, my students were reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Instead of carrying a class set of books from my room to another, I planned a day of film clips and discussion, but the best laid plans often go awry. The technology in my room-for-the-day flopped, plus a number of students were absent due to re-testing (the Texas Education Agency says students must pass these tests to graduate), so I gave the remaining students a free-day, and I babysat. By the end of the day, I sort-of felt like I had been run over by a train.

After babysitting, I drove to my post Hurricane Harvey La Quinta home where the elevator was out of order, trudged up the three flights to room 310 where Rain greeted me with her waggity tail, hooked my dog to her leash and jogged back down the stairs and outside in the 90 ̊ sunshine for necessary doggy business, then plodded up the stairs once more to leave Rain and freshen up.  There I realized that I was feeling low and thirsty. The only beverage in my mini-fridge was an apple cider, and I may or may not have downed a cold one. I definitely tried to think positive thoughts and relax from my day, not to mention my nine months of life in a hotel. I brushed my teeth and hair then took the stairs for the fifth time that day to depart for my interview.

Other than looking presentable, I had totally neglected to prepare—no pre-thought to potential questions or answers, no extra copies of my resume, and worst of all, not even a note-pad or a pen. I thought of these things after checking in with the receptionist, and I knew going in I had made a grave mistake.

At four o’clock on the dot, the principal himself walked through the door, greeted me, shook my hand, and led me into a room with a hiring committee of nine people. Nine. Never had I interviewed with so many people at once. They started with introductions, which I abruptly forgot, and then the first question: “Tell us about yourself.”

I froze. My words conveyed little, or possibly they spoke volumes. If the interview could’ve gone worse from there, it did. At some point, maybe after, “Tell us your strategy for teaching vocabulary,” or “Tell us how you would motivate an at-risk student,” I gave up trying to impress them at all. By the way, this past year, I had over one-hundred students labeled at-risk of dropping out, and I concluded that I couldn’t reach them all. On this particular day, my attitude was like a volcanic eruption, and once the lava flow started, I couldn’t contain it. I spewed pessimism, the type of negativity that will take a person nowhere in life, and I know better.

I didn’t receive an offer, and I wasn’t surprised, but the rejection still stung.
Rejection is God_s Protection

Pamela, one of my bestest, wisest friends, offered her empathy. “I heard this one recently,” she said over the phone. “Rejection is God’s protection.” Surprised I hadn’t heard saying before, I chose to believe. Pamela’s words reminded me of what my mother would have said, “Everything happens for a reason.” It took forty plus years, but over recent months, I had started to understand the reason. Our struggles strengthen us.

everything happens for a reason

FAST FORWARD:

All summer long, I have applied for new jobs, and I have waited. I’ve declined an interview or two based on the school’s reputation or location. Houston is huge and traffic is fierce.

Last week I landed an interview that seemed promising. The dean on the other end of the line said, “We need you to bring copies of your resume, your cover letter, and a lesson plan that you would teach for either AP Lit or AP Lang.” Clear direction from the administration. I love that. I can do this. And so I prepared—like no other interview in my life.

I looked back over ancillary materials from past Advanced Placement workshops attended. Even though I had never taught this lesson, I knew the one I wanted. It was an introduction to poetry analysis and tone, a comparison of Nina Simone’s 1965 “Feeling Good” with Michael Bublé’s 2010 version. If students misinterpret the tone of literature, they risk misinterpreting the meaning. The lesson involved student collaboration and a presentation. It was perfect. Thank you, Sandra Effinger (mseffie.com)!!

While researching the school, I discovered it to be a small 9-12 public high school, housed within a community college less than five miles from my home. Students who attend this school have to apply for the program. They want to be here. Again, I prayed for the right fit.

FAST FORWARD:

I wore my grandmother’s pearls to a very comfortable interview with a panel of four, and I heard Pamela’s words once more, “Rejection is God’s protection.” By the end of the day, after reference checks, I received a call for a second interview with the principal.

Two days later, I met with a lovely soft-spoken woman, the principal, and it was like having coffee with an old friend. She started with, “I’m sure that they bragged about our school on Monday…” She listed off the accolades, and we continued to have a conversation about teaching philosophy and what to expect in my classroom. As the interview officially concluded, she wrapped it up like a gift. “Our students are amazing. It really is teacher heaven.”

“That is so good to hear,” I said, “and I really hope you have a spot for me. Before our relocation, I came from teacher heaven, and I prayed to God I would find it again.”

She replied, “Every year I pray to God for teachers to show up for graduation.“

“I can be there,” I smiled. We shook hands. I felt at peace. Later that day, I received an offer I couldn’t refuse, and next week I will have a fresh start—year 20 in the classroom, this time in teacher heaven. It’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life, and I’m feeling good. Thank you, God!!

Our struggles strengthen us.

 

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I’m Not an Interior Designer

I’m not an interior designer, but I play one on my phone. The game—Design Home. The object—to decorate a room with required elements to win prizes like money and diamonds, both of which can be used to purchase furniture and accessories for your room. Each day brings multiple, changing challenges: an industrial-style living room for an engineer in Krakow, Poland; a modern dining room for this new, critically-acclaimed chef in Moscow, Russia; a luxe bedroom for a tennis athlete relaxing in style after a match in Wimbledon, London. It’s a guilty pleasure. If only designing real homes could be that clean and easy, you know, with prizes involved and all.

Two weeks ago after ten months of flood displacement, we were given the okay to move back into the still incomplete but livable house. We had then and still have one completed bathroom, just missing a vanity mirror, which we have—outside—in the POD—in our driveway.

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The POD has been a sore spot for the past ten months. Our contractor had some of his guys load it, and my husband had specifically asked to be there to supervise. Instead they moved everything without a heads up. Kody had specifically asked that our wardrobe boxes be loaded last, so we could access our winter clothes. Instead the wardrobe boxes went in first, and last, barricading what I could unload myself and what I need now, is an extra refrigerator and a large garage shelving unit. Back in October, our contractor offered to have everything moved out and back in for us, but moving everything two more times than necessary screamed trouble to me, so I just shook my head and played Design Home.

At the moment, silverware and pots and pans—inaccessible in the POD—would be useful. And our newly installed lower kitchen cabinets wait for cabinet pulls—the ones we saved from the moldy cabinets that we dumped on the curb—the ones that must be in the POD. And speaking of kitchen problems, some of the white subway backsplash tiles had to be replaced, and just when I thought the kitchen was practically complete, I discovered that the newly installed wavy tiles did not match the original flat tiles. So now we have more demolition and more tiling and more construction dust everywhere, in the garage, on the street, not to mention in the unfinished kitchen, in the incomplete master bathroom, and on the souls of our shoes. First world problems, right?

So I could go on complaining, but what good does that do? I could also move forward in gratitude. I realize I have a choice, and so I will try. After the thumbs-up on the move-in, I drove to Dallas on a Tuesday and helped our daughter Lauren pack. Turns out she has missed us since our move south two summers ago, a mutual feeling. Even at age 26 1/2 , she will always be our baby girl, and we want her near. Kody joined us in Dallas that Thursday, we picked up a U-Haul on Friday, and the three of us loaded the truck bound for Houston. In return Lauren has been my super helpful sidekick, assisting me with the minutiae of moving and decision making, not to mention the building of some IKEA furniture as we refurnish our house from scratch. Lauren will live with us temporarily while adjusting to her new life in a new city, and having her here makes our house seem like home. For my family, I am MOST thankful.

After the final furniture delivery last Monday, we packed my Mazda once more and drove far, far away to the Oklahoma Panhandle for the fourth of July with family…

and then on to the mountains and the cool, clean air of New Mexico with my sister and brother and other brothers.

My nostalgia for these places and my people runs deep, the peaceful skies unforgettable. Where I grew up in Oklahoma, the waving fields of wheat and corn kiss the endless cornflower blue. Where I snow skied all my life in New Mexico, a gazillion stars sprinkle the midnight navy. Especially in these places, I realize the world is larger than one life, and I know there is a God who designed this home for us all.

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Ode to the La Quinta

Ten months ago on the 27th,  I felt as if the sky was torn off my life. In short, Hurricane Harvey had flooded my home. My family and our dog Rain evacuated along with our neighbors and their dogs in the rain. Houston fire fighters rescued us in a flat-bed city dump-truck and then dumped us in a dry parking garage. From there we sloshed on foot a little over a mile to a pet-friendly La Quinta, a safe haven in the face of crisis, where we’ve lived ever since. (More details @ That Time When I Met Harvey)

The Flood

The people here have been so kind. My La Quinta family—Raven and Shanta and Amber and Chad—all from the front desk. They’ve been there on good days and bad days. They’ve witnessed us at our best and worst. Raven was here on day one. She had answered the phone when Kody called from the parking garage to make our reservation and allowed us an early 9 AM check-in. That same day she loaned us her personal umbrella to run across the street in more rain to the Hilton for lunch. And whenever Raven works, she recognizes the click of Rain’s nails on the tile, and she always says, “Hello, Rain, I heard you coming!” A friend of Rain’s is a friend of mine. Shanta, the general manager, was the first to welcome me into the hotel laundry room for our personal needs. She was there for the excitement of an upcoming interview, she was there for the disappointment of a terrible previously mentioned interview, and she offered me a job at the La Quinta as a consolation. I just might take her up on that, and if not, I can totally see myself dropping by just to visit these people whom I will miss. Then there’s Amber, who works the night shift and goes from here to her other job at a memory care facility or vice versa. We had some good heart-to-hearts…about my mom…about Drew. Throughout this past school year, I left the hotel each morning between 6:15 and 6:30. Amber was always there to tell me to “Have a good one!” And Chad, well, he’s most often here in the evening, and Kody and I tend to have adult beverages in the evening, and sometimes Kody raps in the evening, and Chad, well, he gets it. He’s entertained. He’s a nice audience. I have another friend named Joanna, also displaced from the storm that displaced so many, living here since November with her kids Bella (11) and Bun (9, given name Toby) and their dog Storm. Bun loves Rain, too, and the irony of our dogs and their names does not escape me. Recently Joanna and I had a conversation about our time here winding down. “Everyone here has been sooo nice to us,” she said. “When we leave, it will be bittersweet.” Her words echo my thoughts.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, I’m excited to move back home, and it’s finally, ten months later, happening. As I recline on my last night here, propped up on pillows, in my bed with clean sheets, I feel there’s something to be said about good people who care. There’s a special place in heaven…

Good People

 

There’s a Fungus Among Us

For nearly a year I’ve consumed a plant-based diet. Yes, I cheat from time to time, usually with fish. Kody and I did split a Sweet and Spicy Bacon Burger from Whataburger not long ago. I have no regrets. We used to eat that way all the time. Without the split.

Last week I indulged with a Frito pie at Local Foods here in Houston. Topped with cashew queso, a soy protein, the most beautiful tomatoes, fresh red onion and jalapeño and cilantro and a little hot sauce, it was soooo good. I’m confident I can make a similar pie myself when we move back home soon.   

Frito pie

And this Hopdoddy Impossible burger is in the weekly rotation. Hold the cheese, please. The meat-free patty, developed by former Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown and a team of researchers at Impossible Foods, is made entirely of plant-based ingredients. Potato protein allows the exterior to sear, and coconut oil melts like beef fat. However, heme is the magic. This legume-derived, iron-containing molecule also found in blood, gives the “meat” its texture, smell, and a pinkish interior.   

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I used to have a cholesterol problem, but plants don’t have cholesterol. Problem solved, medication and cardiologist no longer needed. Anyway speaking of doctors, I’m reminded of my fungus. Seriously, it’s on my right foot—uncomfortable and ugly, itchy and flaky. I thought maybe it was eczema and tried to treat it myself like I did the cholesterol. I’m embarrassed to say how long I self-medicated, just hoping it would go away (for years) before realizing that I needed professional help, and then even knowing I needed to see a doctor, how much longer it took me to make an appointment (another year or so).  

I searched my insurance company’s website for a dermatologist for the first time ever, and within a day I had an appointment and saw the doctor who diagnosed the fungus and prescribed me some cream. In my head I had exaggerated the difficulty of seeking treatment. From beginning to end, the process was painless, which is more than I can say for my foot. The doctor, who specializes in skin conditions, was compassionate and kind. 

A long-time good friend of mine recently reached out via text to tell me about a silent health struggle: “I am seeing a [insert type of doctor here] for more tests…All I know is that the pain has been almost intolerable and I need an answer and some relief. I didn’t want to say anything because it sounds like I’m complaining, but it’s time I let you know that something isn’t right and I’m trying to get answers.” 

sometimes-all-you-need-is-for-someone-just-to-be-11933760 With my mind on my fungus and my fungus on my mind, I continue to think about health in general and suffering people and reasons why a person might choose to delay the help they need and challenges for those pursuing relief. Like other illnesses, fungus does not discriminate, and our medical problems, like a fungus when ignored or denied, grow and fester. I’m thankful to live in an age of medical access, and I’m thankful for friends and family who have listened to me when I needed to talk about my fungus.  And that’s really what life is all about, right? Friends and family and being there.

Impossible Burger sources:

http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/eats/meet-meatless-impossible-burger-veggie-burger-bleeds-article-1.2727141

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/06/21/482322571/silicon-valley-s-bloody-plant-burger-smells-tastes-and-sizzles-like-meat

Mental Health, Being Aware: An Update and a Prayer

hope

Family and friends often ask, “How’s Drew?”

I wish I could say, “Phenomenal.” In reality, he’s okay.

In 2015, we faced Hospitalization #5, and I pulled the you-can-no-longer-live-at-home-unless-you-take-medicine card. Drew now accepts that he hears voices, and I accompany him to monthly appointments with his psychiatrist for an extended-release, anti-psychotic injection. It’s not perfect, but it helps. Like clockwork the auditory hallucinations become increasingly loud and mean about a week before his shot, and they stick around for about a week afterwards. The voices within taunt Drew. They yell at him. They cuss at him. Drew responds. He taunts, yells, and cusses right back. I’ve learned not to take the outbursts personally, but I can’t shake that sensation of pressure on my breastbone and the deep piercing of my heart, so I pray—for his peace and mine and Kody’s and our dog Rain, who hides under the bed. Two good weeks. Two restless weeks. At least I don’t have to oversee the daily swallowing of a pill or worry about him cheeking it and spitting it out.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Lee, invites me in to their monthly appointment, and after chatting about music for a while, he says things like this, “Are you having any anxiety?”

Drew responds, “No.”

“Any crying spells?”

“No.”

“Any paranoia?”

“No.”

“Do you hear any voices?

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“But, do you feel you can manage them?”

“Yes.”

“Good. That’s good,” Dr. Lee says before wrapping up the session. “You know, Andrew, I think you are doing really well, and ten years from now, I think you’ll be doing even better. Medicines are improving. They are always researching. Who knows? You go to sleep one night, and you wake up the next morning to a cure.”

I’m thankful for this doctor. I’m thankful for our current medication that has kept us from the inside of a hospital for the past three years. I’m thankful for resources at my fingertips at the click of a button. I’m thankful for a God who keeps my perspective in check and gives me hope.

This May (Mental Health Awareness Month), I found the prayer below on another mom/mental health advocate’s Facebook page. The original author is unknown, and I searched unsuccessfully to locate the source. However, I found it posted on schizophrenia.com as early as October 2004 again on Nouwen-network.com, an Australian site solely for resources on the theme of mental illness, ministry, prayer, and spirituality. I’ve been this mom, if not all at once, at least at times along the way, and so I pass her prayer to others needing the words—to others needing hope.

*****

A Mother’s Prayer for Mental Illness

As I stumble from my bed this morning, help me to remember to be gentle and kind.
My child’s mind is shredding into a million pieces. He lives in a constant state of atrocious fear. I can see it in his eyes. Give him peace.

Guide me as I hold him in my arms. Help me to know what to say. What to do. Fill my heart with healing love, understanding, and empathy.

Give me the strength of a thousand angels to hold back my tears. My heart is broken and a tidal wave of grief is overwhelming me with the need to cry. Give me the strength to bear it long enough to keep it from disturbing my child. Help me find someone I can safely bring it to.

Help me answer my family’s questions with the same amount of compassion I would want for myself. Help me remember they are hurting too. This is an unwelcomed assault on an entire family. My heart is not the only heart that is broken. We all need time and each other to heal.

As my journey becomes more and more isolative and lonely, remind me that the lack of involvement on the part of family and friends is not always because of the stigma and the ignorance. For many, it is because they are hurting too. They have the privilege of turning to their own lives. This is my family’s life now. I must deal with it whether I am hurting or not.

Send me your best physicians and healers. Give me presence of mind, as I walk through the exhaustion of my grief to not settle for just any one no matter how tiresome the journey becomes.

Help me adjust to the idea, that although it appears my son is gone, there will be no goodbye. And that he is still inside somewhere waiting for us to find him.

Infuse the creative part of my mind with solution oriented thinking. Give me hope. Even if it is just a glimmer of hope. A mother can go for miles on just one tiny glimmer. Let me see just a flicker of the sparkle of joy in his eyes.

Guide my hands, calm my mind, as I fill out the multitude of forms for services. Then help me do it again over and over.

Provide me with the knowledge. Lead me to the books I need to read, the organizations I need to connect with. As you work though the people in my life, help me to recognize those that are here to help. Help me trust the right ones. Shine a light upon the right path.

Give me the courage to speak my truth; to know my son’s truth. And to speak for him when he is unable to do it for himself. Show me when to do for him what he is not capable of doing for himself. Help me to recognize the difference.

Help me to stand tall in the face of the stigma; to battle the discrimination with the mighty sword of a spiritual warrior. And to deflect the sting of blame and faultfinding from the ignorant and the cruel.

Preserve my love for my family. Shield my marriage with the wisdom of the love that brought us together.

Protect him from homelessness, loneliness, victimization, poverty, hunger, hopelessness, relapse, drugs, alcohol, suicide, cruelty and obscurity.

Lead us to the miracles of better medications, better funding, better services, safe and plentiful housing, meaningful employment, communities who care, enlightenment. Help us to find some way to replace all the greed with humanitarian work and intrinsic reward again.

Most of all, give me the strength to deliver whatever I can to the work of unmasking the man made ugliness of this disease and revealing the human and all of it’s suffering beneath.

Finally, when it is my time to leave my son behind, send a thousand angels to take my place.

*****

Can I get an amen? Thank you for reading today and especially during the month of May. Thank you for taking time to try to understand the brain as a vital, potentially malfunctioning organ. And most of all thank you for your prayers and support for Drew and others with schizophrenia, 1.1% of the population, roughly 51 million worldwide.

Hope Jeremiah

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