Wild Improbability Continues

“I’m working on my memoir,” I typed on my laptop and scoffed, an audible huff through my nose. I feel like a fraud to say it—still I plan to persist. During the summer of 2011, I attended a two week summer writing institute through Plano Independent School District, where I taught sophomore English at the time. I wrote a piece about my son Drew’s paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis and how that came about during his first psychiatric hospitalization. This episode begins the story I must write.

I attended this same professional development opportunity nine years earlier in 2002. At the time I was a novice seventh grade English teacher and hardly a writer, but the course required a final written piece to be shared with our class on the last day. In all truthfulness I lacked the vulnerability to share anything real and the creativity to write believable fiction, so I wrote about writer’s block. Isn’t that ridiculous? Looking back, I would give anything to have written a slice of life involving Drew and Lauren. They were twelve and ten at the time, a cellist and a soccer player. But no, I wrote about writer’s block. In my defense, my piece was connected to my teaching and learning empathy for my students who struggled with their words on the page. And this course transformed my approach to classroom writing assignments—more mentor texts as models, more creative opportunities, more choices, and portfolios to track progress.

By 2013 I landed an opportunity to launch a Creative Writing elective class at my high school. While developing lesson plans, I adopted the philosophy that writers must be readers (and we took time for that) and that writers must write—every day. I remember feeling like a hypocrite, not unlike now, and forcing myself to write—(almost) every day, journaling bits of dialogue and scenes, keeping notes in my phone for later, and writing each assignment alongside my student authors. I’ve taught some truly gifted kids over the years, and my efforts often paled in comparison. Still I persisted. I started my memoir in secrecy during class and in my spare time and as inspiration struck. At some point, I knew I had a story to tell although the words written in 2013 remain really rough. Tell it I did, much more than showing. At the moment I have 53,834 words, single spaced in an 11 point font, on 101 pages, but as Anne Lamott would say, “It’s a shitty first draft.”

In the summer 2016, a job transfer for my husband brought us south from Dallas to Houston, I lost my beloved Creative Writing class and the convenience of good friends nearby, and I discovered a void. I didn’t write much for a while, instead drinking copious amounts of alcohol to fill the growing hole. Fast forward to August of 2017, Harvey, the hurricane, flooded my family out of our house and into a pet-friendly La Quinta for the next ten months. Not only had I saved my laptop, but my laptop saved me. I typed the story of our evacuation and sent my words for the first time into the blogosphere. I typed other stories, too, and again and again, I tapped the blue button in the upper right corner, the one that says Publish. Seventy-nine posts later, I see growth, and this growth encourages me to return to those shitty first drafts.

And in 2020, at age 50, I went back to school for a graduate program in Creative Writing, and my professor wanted to know what I plan to work on this semester and why. So this is it. “I’m working on my memoir.” And still, I shake my head and laugh.

The struggle is real.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

I look at my reflection in the mirror this morning and notice my throat splotching red. But I teach school, and school’s out for summer. I shouldn’t have one iota of stress. I stop for a moment to consider my thoughts. You know those thoughts, the ones you can’t shake?

Present thought—the iceberg. You know, the whole picture—the tip of the iceberg you see above the surface and the huge mass you see below. It’s like how you know a person based on what you see, but you can’t see past the surface, or maybe you can see just below the surface but not too much deeper without asking some heavy questions. When I started Googling images to illustrate this fuzzy point in my head, I stumbled onto Freud’s iceberg theory, and he said exactly what was on my mind. Weird, right? My brain forgets so much these days. I know the theory. I just didn’t remember that Freud fathered it. Anywho, I studied a bit and hope someone else might find the information helpful.

According to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic theory, the mind can be divided into three separate parts with varying purposes:

  1. The conscious part includes what we can sense in the moment—thoughts, memories, feelings, and wishes.
  2. The preconscious part consists of memories we can pull into our conscious on cue for a specific purpose. For example, you walk into a restaurant to have lunch with a friend, peruse the menu, and say, “What do you like here?” Looking at the menu will prompt your friend to remember.
  3. The unconscious part comprises the bulk of our minds—unpleasant or unacceptable thoughts, memories, habits, urges, reactions, and feelings outside the realm of our conscious awareness, such as anxiety and shame, conflict and broken hearts.
Image courtesy of https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-unconscious-2796004

Freud compared the levels of the mind to an iceberg. Above the surface, you see the tip of the iceberg representing the conscious. Below the water, observable at surface level is the preconscious. The massive part of the iceberg extending too deep to be visible represents the unconscious. According to Freud, the unconscious mind affects our behavior and experiences without our awareness or understanding. We all have a storehouse of memories and emotions that we push down deep to forget. Verywellmind.com explains it all very well and dedicates a whole page to psychotherapy. It has been shown that continued self-examination leads to emotional growth over time, and I’m all for growth of any kind.

So as my throat splotches red and I contemplate why people (including myself) do what they do and say what they say and make the same mistakes over and over, the answer according to Freud is pretty simple after all.

Food for Thought and Mental Health

Thanks for participating in #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth.

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

I wish I could say, “Phenomenal.” In reality, he’s okay, and I remind myself of our baby steps forward…(click this link for our story and a prayer).

Mental Health Marathons

I wish I could say otherwise, but this marathon stretches past the normal twenty-six miles into nine new-normal years on a treadmill to nowhere fast. I understand why people quit, and I understand why people can’t pick up the pace. Marathons require stamina and an unswerving belief in the ability to finish, and so I cling to my belief in God and his timing, medical advancements and the promise of stem cells, sun-filled days and peaceful nights.

lifespan-tr4000i-folding-treadmill
Courtesy of coastfitness.com

When I compare each year to the previous one, I measure our progress and remind myself, “The road to recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.” For more of the marathon, click here.

 

 

Hope in the Hippocampus

I find myself a little twitchy these days…when I feel like writing, but have nothing much to say or perhaps too much to say but nothing of importance. Ideas spin in my hippocampus* and cerebral cortex*, and I Google words like medulla oblongata* (in case I want to use it correctly, and I find words like hippocampus and cerebral cortex and use them instead), and I question this desire not only to write, but also to share details of my life on the World Wide Web.

Speaking of Hippo Campus, have you heard of them? They’re an indie rock band from St. Paul, Minnesota, and a side note, I dig indie rock with a shovel, so here you go.

Anyway, I began blogging fifteen months ago when an actual hurricane blew into town and dumped 20 trillion gallons of rain on Houston (according to ABC News). Twenty trillion. Can you imagine? Well, Harvey flooded me and my family and our dog Rain right out of our house (along with another estimated 13 million people and countless animals region-wide). Friends and family called and texted their concern and support, and in a post-traumatic stupor, I couldn’t talk about it. But—while propped up on pillows with laptop on lap in my king-sized bed at my post-hurricane home, AKA the La Quinta Inns and Suites, I typed out a little memoir titled That Time When I Met Harvey. I planned to share it with my sophomores as an introduction to a writing assignment, and I did, but suddenly I found myself creating a WordPress account and publishing my first blog post. I chose faith and gratitude during that time, and guess what? Faith and gratitude granted me peace and hope, and that’s the message I wanted to share.

And now, fifteen months and thirty-nine posts later, I realize that not all posts can be about hurricane evacuations or psychotic episodes or purse snatchings. Thank God! And now I waver over possible material. These days I consider writing about the cockroach in my classroom that I silently snuffed out as students sat scribbling down semester exam essays, which I should be grading by the way, but then again cockroach murders do not fit the faith and gratitude theme, unless you count the way I saved the classroom peace. And now I wonder, who really cares to read my ramblings and why am I writing anyway? These questions cannot escape my hippocampus (or is it my cerebral cortex?), and although I do not have all of the answers to life’s big questions or for my own baffling behaviors, I hope in some small way, YOU can relate.

(WE are not alone, and I wish you PEACE and HOPE).

* According to Wikipedia, “Humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, one in each side of the brain. The hippocampus belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, and in spatial memory that enables navigation.”

* The cerebral cortex “plays a key role in memory, attention, perception, awareness, thought, language, and consciousness” (Wikipedia). I’m fairly certain Hope lives in the cerebral cortex, but Hope in the Hippocampus sounds as cool as the band.

* “The medulla [oblongata] contains the cardiac, respiratory, vomiting and vasomotor centers and therefore deals with the autonomic functions of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure” (Wikipedia). And it reminds me of Bobby Boucher (pronounced boo-SHAY) in Waterboy.

https://youtu.be/cu7A8LIzL1o

The Things We Carry

My eyes are bleary, and my head is spinning. The feels of a teacher heading back to school—a new school with two new, advanced preps and new technology—a teacher hired late and cramming the summer reading, cramming the planning, doing the best she can without a user ID and password, hoping to give all of her students a fighting chance of passing advanced placement exams in the spring and earning college credit, hoping to have access to her grade book by day two.

I’m exhausted, I still have so much to learn, and students start today.Teacher PhotoMy future students were assigned Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to read over the summer. I hadn’t read this novel before, and honestly I hadn’t read anything about Vietnam or any other war, but now I categorize this book as a must-read. In 1968 O’Brien was drafted into the Army’s 46th Infantry and sent to Vietnam, and his seemingly autobiographical work of fiction sheds light on the war from a soldier’s perspective. O’Brien’s narration begins literally with the items that each soldier carried, introducing each character and setting up subsequent chapters, which read like short stories, all connected through mutual experience.

On day one after introductions and expectations, my new 11th graders will write about something they carry, an actual object or otherwise, now or in their past. I’ve reflected upon how I would respond if I were the student. While reading, I began to understand that Tim O’Brien has written over and over about Vietnam, book after book, because of the emotional baggage he carries. Each of his characters experiences compelling and transformative trauma, and theirs triggered mine.

It was a year ago today, August 27, 2017. I’ll never forget sloshing through the rising waters inside my house, opening my front door to a wave of more, wading through the flood over my knees to the evacuation truck, and trudging from the drop-off location another mile or so to a hotel where we would live for the next ten months. I would like to say that Hurricane Harvey is now behind me, I would like to say my ordeal in no way compares to those of a Vietnam veteran or any veteran’s trauma, but in the weeks preceding the one-year anniversary of Harvey, the memories continued to flood my thoughts—in the middle of my professional development sessions, in my car while driving around Houston, in the grocery store while sorting through the tomatoes. You would think my brain would be otherwise occupied, but no. The hurricane still spins with everything else I’m learning and thinking and adding to my To-Do list.

As I read through a veteran’s lens, I saw in those soldiers my friends, my classmates K-12 and co-workers and husbands and kids of friends and cousins of mine and my uncle, all who have served. I couldn’t stop thinking of so many good people I know, veterans, and their untold stories. I especially couldn’t stop thinking of Kenny Perrin, my classmate who always appeared to my left in our yearbooks, our names listed alphabetically—Kenny Perrin, Crystal Petty. He lost his life, just this summer, to illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the things he carried. Rest in peace, Kenny. I will never forget you as a friend, and I will never forget the sacrifices you made in the name of duty.

Brain Scans
Who are we to judge illness and injury and the things people carry? Images of a healthy brain vs. classic post-traumatic stress disorder vs. classic traumatic brain injury vs. both.         Source: PLOS One at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129659

As I carry my own past and the intimidation of an unknown future, I remember a beautiful, smart, athletic former student named Peyton. She messaged me via Twitter this summer in appreciation of giving her “extra confidence” in her writing abilities and coming to work with a “great attitude” and so many kind, kind words. And she remembered “like it was yesterday” walking into class in a cute outfit and me saying, “Peyton, I love your style.” I want to say that she wore white that day, maybe a jean jacket, maybe a blazer, looking super sophisticated as a sophomore. And in her message to me she said, “It’s the little things that give a girl confidence when she needs it most.” And that. That is what I choose to carry with me into this new year at a new school with new preps and new kids. Peyton, whether she knew it or not, gave me a little confidence when I needed it the most and reminded me to keep doing what I do. She reminded me that everything will be okay, and today I pay it forward to you and to my new students and right back to Peyton if she is reading up in NYC between her classes at Columbia. Everything will be okay.

We all carry things—literally, emotionally—some we wouldn’t choose and some we can’t necessarily drop, but we can choose some good to carry along. You know, to balance it all out.

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, and I remind myself of our baby steps forward.

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?

I nod my yes in the background. Drew hesitates before saying, “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