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.

https://youtu.be/Ure4jaEue5U

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

Mental Health Recovery : A Marathon Not a Sprint

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 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 at a hospital about fifteen miles from home. He attended. I waited. A teacher by day, I had transportable work, papers to grade, books to read, and I tried bonding with Drew during the drive time.

Receiving a weekly e-mail reminder about the class, I looked forward to the class when the attendees would tell their stories (even if I would be hanging out in my car). I wondered how Drew would describe the last few years of his life, especially as I consider my own version. More than anything, I wish I could completely understand and accurately convey Drew’s perspective, but I can only give you mine. Mine is a story of a mother’s heartbreak and hope in the face of mental illness, a story of navigating the rocky road to recovery with my son 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, leaving mainly to eat and smoke. No one would choose a life like that. 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. If you have five minutes, please watch.

Uncomfortable, right? This is mental illness. How would you react to voices commenting on everything you do? Criticizing you endlessly?

I cling to the hope that through the doctor and the classes and forward momentum that Drew will gain insight on brain disorders…that he will come to an acceptance of his “new normal”…that he will seek further help…that he will someday contribute to society…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 on Tuesday nights. 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 usually 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 and a young lady emerged together through the hospital doors. She stood in the spotlight of the entryway as Drew’s backlit silhouette approached the car. He opened the passenger side door and leaned in to ask, “Could we give Rachel a ride home?” Rachel lived in 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 in the darkness of winter, I found myself driving Rachel toward home.

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 I did as he hopped out of the car.  From the trunk Drew grabbed his banished backpack, unable to contain the stench of his glass water pipe inside. He loaded the bowl with organic Natural American Spirit tobacco and smoked under the halo of parking lot lighting.

Alone with Rachel, I seized my opportunity, “So Rachel, does Drew say 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 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, an ongoing concern. 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 what had happened in front of Rachel.  “I think you are right. He sees 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, the yelling and mocking, the “Fuck yous” and gibberish behind the closed door of his bedroom.  Even though Dr. Hanna can’t discuss Drew with me, he’ll listen. He always doesAbilify. I suddenly remembered. “Abilify.” I said. “That’s the medicine 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 how well her medication 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?” My nonsensical response was 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, and 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