I Commit.

January 1, 2019. I made a commitment.

No more.

I even had a head start. Starting December 27th, no more.

And so far, so good.

Even now I hate to admit my habit, but here goes.

Goodbye, cigarettes. You comforted me for a time. Thank you for showing me that it’s time for me to work on me.  

I remember listening to one of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s audiobooks about ten years ago. He practiced saying goodbye and thanking whatever is bothering him. His daughter had some bumps, I don’t remember the details, but the bumps were a problem, a problem that went away when she spoke to them with kindness and a farewell. Together they wrote a children’s book about it. Recently, Marie Kondo reminded me of the technique in her tv show on tidying up, thanking the items you use and love as you put them away, keeping only the things that spark joy, thanking items for the joy they brought you at one time before bidding them adieu. I try to use these lessons in my life. It’s a work in progress. I believe 2019 will be a year of personal growth.

A second commitment evolved throughout the month. I like to start school each new year on a positive note. A new year. A fresh start. I know for a fact that some kids don’t get much positivity at home, and we can all use an extra dose of positive. Anyway, on January 4th, I read a blog post titled “You need to believe it’s possible.” Click the link to read. Embedded in that post was a sixteen-minute video titled “The Power of Belief.

I decided to show the video to my students on their first day back, January 7th, and have them journal about what they believe. I watched the video seven times total, once to preview and again with each class. After the third viewing, I noticed an ad at the end for Evan Carmichael’s book Your One Word with a #believe at the bottom of the front cover. I tweaked the writing assignment for my classes to reflect on their one word for 2018 and their one word for 2019 in addition to what they believe.

I didn’t journal at the time, but I thought about my two words and what I believe.

Word of 2018. Hope. When I began this self-imposed writing gig while living in a La Quinta and rebuilding our house that had been flooded by Harvey, I named my blog Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope. My dad gave me a silver bracelet engraved with HOPE for my birthday last year, and I wear it almost every day as a reminder that Hope, with a capital H, is a choice. I can choose my attitude, another gift of a lesson from dear old Dad. I’m fairly certain Dad is also a Wayne Dyer fan. Amid crisis, I have a choice. Hope or Despair? I choose hope along with the opportunity to grow.

Word of 2019. Believe. I realize Hope and Believe are practically synonyms. In my mind Belief removes all doubt and fuels the Hope. Belief reminds me to trust God in the process. I’m in a different place now. Literally. Back home and on a new couch. So what do I believe? I believe in a better, healthier future for everyone in my family. I believe in the progress of medicine and stem cells and cures for diseases like paranoid schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and addiction. I believe that together we are stronger, and our relationships are important. I believe my writing is evolving and helping others evolve. I believe one day I will publish a book. All through the grace of God. Some of these beliefs I shared with my students, and after one class a student came up to me and said, “Mrs. Byers, my grandfather has Parkinson’s, and my mom is like you. She researched and found a place right here in Bellaire that does stem cell treatments and took him.”

“So your grandfather is better now?” I asked.

She nodded, holding our eye contact with a serioussincerity, “I will find out where and let you know.”

And like that, I had a new avenue to explore. I believe it’s only a matter of time. I believe all of it with faith in God, gratitude in advance, and peace in my heart.

January 11th was our daughter Lauren’s 27th birthday, and Kody and I gave her a three-month membership to a local boxing gym, which included a three-month membership for me. We would go together. Now mind you, I had not worked out in any way for approximately a year and a half, but I believe in a healthier future. Right? So on January 13th, Lauren and I found our workout clothes, drove to the gym with over fifty suspended heavy bags, wrapped our wrists and knuckles, and started our first class—kickboxing. The fifteen minute warm-up included jumping jacks and pushups, lunges and squats. My calves started screaming after about one minute. Somehow I pushed forward. Then we pulled on our gloves and punched and kicked our way through eight, three-minute rounds with the bag before the abdominal-focused cool-down using weighted medicine balls. If that sounds hard, it is. On January 14th Kody joined us, this time for boxing, and he signed on the line for the membership. By January 15th, I could barely walk up a flight of stairs, but two weeks and five classes later, I’m feeling pretty fantastic, and Lauren has made it to at least three classes without me. And the bonus…this gym is motivational, the instructors are motivational, I am motivated, and it’s quality family time.

On the wall at the gym.

Last weekend I traveled the three-hour road to Austin to hang out with my like-minded childhood besties overnight. I am so very thankful for Denise and Pamela and our forty-ish year friendships, speaking of sparking joy. For the trip I downloaded Rachel Hollis’s audio of Girl Wash Your Face. I like this girl Rachel, and I can’t stop thinking of something she said, and I want you to read it:

“A few months ago after I was out to dinner with my closest girlfriend which was an impromptu happy hour that turned into an impromptu dinner and ended up going later than any of us anticipated, I went downstairs to the basement where our old treadmill is hidden and ran a few miles. I put the evidence of that workout on Snapchat, and later my girlfriend saw it and sent me a text. “You worked out after dinner? What in the world?”

I wrote back, “Yes, because I planned on doing it and didn’t want to cancel.”

“Couldn’t you just postpone until tomorrow?” She was genuinely perplexed.  

“No, because I made a promise to myself and I don’t break those, not ever.”

“Ugh,” she typed back. “I’m the FIRST person I break a promise to.”

She’s not the only one. I used to do that all the time until I realized how hard I was fighting to keep my word to other people while quickly canceling on myself. I’ll work out tomorrow became I’m not working out anytime soon—because honestly, if you really cared about that commitment, you’d do it when you said you would. What if you had a friend who constantly flaked on you? What if every other time you made plans she decided not to show up? Or what if a friend from work was constantly starting something new? Every three Mondays she announced a new diet or goal and then two weeks later it just ended? Y’all, would you respect her? This woman who starts and stops over and over again? Would you count on the friend who keeps blowing you off for stupid reasons? Would you trust them when they committed to something?

No. No way. And that level of distrust and apprehension applies to you too. Your subconscious knows that you, yourself, cannot be trusted after breaking so many plans and giving up on so many goals.

When you really want something, you will find a way. When you don’t really want something, you’ll find an excuse. I know that blowing off a workout, a date, an afternoon to organize your closet, or some previous commitment to yourself doesn’t seem like a big deal—but it is. It’s a really big deal. Our words have power, but our actions shape our lives.”

Rachel Hollis

Wow, Rachel, why haven’t I realized this before? You, my young friend, are right. Okay girl, three times per week, at least. That’s my boxing commitment for the next three months.

Thursday I came home to a package in the mail—inside, a silver bangle bracelet with BELIEVE in capital letters and a note from my Denise–Believe is a powerful thing!!


What do you believe? What is your word for 2018? 2019?


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

A Thanksgiving Episode

Sunday morning of Thanksgiving week included my parents and my sister, Philippians 4:6-8, and a blood-stained sock.

Philippians 4 6-7

After breakfast, Dad drove, and I rode shotgun to Mom’s memory care home, where she sat alone with the Christmas tree in the community living room. Dressed for church, she was ready for the day when we arrived, and her eyes lit up like the tree at the sight of us. Dad grabbed a brush from her bedroom and demonstrated his skills as a stylist. I attempted small talk. Alzheimer’s is a thief, stealing more all the time from one of the kindest people to ever walk the earth. Dad helped Mom stand up. He helped her with her coat. He helped her to the car and buckled her in, and together the three of us took a Sunday drive to kill some time before church.

In the sanctuary, Mom, Dad, and I found spots at the very back, where friends stopped by to say hello and check on my mom before the service, and my sister slipped into our row next to me. The graphic design on front of the bulletin read, “…in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” and the minister spoke on the same theme for another few verses. The words of the apostle Paul turned over in my head and resonated with me. I remembered my mother’s voice. I remembered times gone by when she spoke these same words. I realized the meaning had stuck. I realized that every meant every. Pray with a thankful heart in every situation. I heard my mother’s voice, now silent. I heard God’s voice, “Peace…which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts” and “if anything is excellent…think on such things.” Leaving the sanctuary that day, I felt thankful for the message, for my safe trip from Houston to the Oklahoma panhandle, for a week of vacation and time with family, for more time with my mother, and for the peace I carried with me.

Dad and I took Mom back to the nursing home. I helped her change tops and took off her shoes to help her change pants, and that’s when I spotted the blood stained sock. Mom’s toe had been bleeding obviously, and I’m not good at this type of thing. “Um, Dad?” I said. He was hanging up her church clothes. “I think Mom’s toe is bleeding.”

I stepped away and let Dad take over. He rolled down Mom’s compression sock and pulled it off her foot. I caught a glimpse of the horror. Dad left the room to find a nurse. Mom’s toenail stood perpendicular to her nail bed, bleeding. It seemed as if the nail had caught on the sock when they had gone on. Then the foot had been shoved into a shoe. My stomach still turns, four days later.

A nurse showed up promptly, filling a pink plastic basin with warm soapy water and submerging Mom’s foot to soak for awhile before the inevitable toenail removal. I’ll skip the details. “Now, are you her daughter?” The nurse darted a glance at me from her position on the floor before further examination of my mother’s toe.

“Yes,” I replied as my mother made a funny face and laughed with unrestrained joy. I looked back at Dad, sitting directly behind the nurse and caught him mid-face-contortion. Mom cackled some more.

“Does that tickle?” The nurse asked Mom, oblivious to the mostly silent comedic flirtation of my parents.

“No, they’re making faces at each other,” I replied for Mom.

“I love seeing them together,” the nurse said. “They really have something special. You just don’t see that very often. She looks at him with so much love.”

I always knew my dad hung my mom’s moon, but over the last year or so, I’ve come to realize that Mom hung Dad’s moon, too. And these excellent things, I will think upon.

Philippians 4 8

Word of the Month: Gratitude

A couple of years ago, before we moved to Houston, one of my favorite students gave me a gratitude journal and wrote on the inside cover, “Because you have truly taught me to appreciate the joys of life, no matter how small. Thank you.”

Gratitude Journal

Copyrighted by Chronicle Books with text by Catherine Price, the introduction speaks of our tendency as humans to be consumed by our problems and how to combat this inclination with a happiness strategy called the “three blessings” approach.

The first prompt says, “PICK OUT THREE THINGS IN YOUR DAY THAT ARE BEAUTIFUL. Take time to notice and appreciate them in the moment; then, when you get home, jot them down in your journal.”

 I completed my first entry on a day when I desperately needed to shift my focus…

 Aug. 27, 2017

In the midst of Hurricane Harvey.

Today Kody, Drew, Rain, and I were rescued by HFD on an emergency truck with sixteen people including our neighbors and first responders and seven dogs. Water shin deep flooded our house when we left. Our yard was submerged to my knees. I’m thankful for being able to communicate via cell phone and Facebook. I’m thankful for those who have prayed and continue to pray for us. I’m thankful for the La Quinta and breakfast and a room, actually a suite, and space for Drew and for a shower and dry clothes and for our next-door neighbors Boaz and Megan (also sheltered here) who brought us water and snacks and for the restaurant at the Hilton across the street that had wine!!

********

Looking back, I only grabbed what I needed for an evacuation and packed what I could carry in an over-the-shoulder bag. I suppose in that moment I realized I needed God and gratitude.

Flash forward fourteen months to November 2018. We have a place to call home again, and this month I renew my commitment to gratitude and my journal. Admittedly, I’m behind, but I like the idea of focusing on the little things and journaling three a day.

The next blank page of my gratitude journal says, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”                               —Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French novelist

Gratitude

 Would you like to join me in my gratitude practice? Let’s call it a happiness experiment.

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.

 

Lessons from an Alabama Rain

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Automatic Weapons Suck*

Peace 2

Another mass shooting, and I can’t even…I find myself reading. I want to know the victims. Did you happen to read, “The Names and Faces of the Florida Shooting Victims?” I hope you will. Click the link. They deserve to be remembered. My heart breaks for the parents who lost children, educators who lost students, kids who lost siblings and friends and teachers who took bullets for them. Another school, another mass shooting. I want to know the suspect.  Did you happen to read that Cruz purchased the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 .223 assault rifle lawfully as an 18-year-old? Why can teenagers legally buy semi-automatic weapons before alcohol? Did you happen to read that authorities had been called to Cruz’s house 39 times between 2011 and 2016 and that he claimed to hear voices in his head telling him to carry out the attack? This information strikes a chord with me, and my heart also breaks for those who suffer from mental health issues. My son Drew also hears voices in his head, and in those years of refusing medication, I made a handful of hard calls to 911. When the police would arrive, they always asked, “Are there any weapons in the house?”

And I would always say, “No.” After talking to Drew, officers would always take him away in handcuffs, never to jail, instead to a psychiatric hospital. The need for help, always obvious. There’s no simple way to tell our story, and maybe one day I’ll publish that book. But this I know—medication helps, and people who care can make a difference.

Instead of my story, let me tell you about Stephanie Escamilla. I know of her through a CNN article titled “’My Son Is Mentally Ill’ So Listen Up,” which sheds light on mental illness through the lens of an average American family and its pursuit of normalcy.  Escamilla’s 14-year-old son “Daniel” has been diagnosed with type 1 bipolar disorder compounded with episodes of psychosis.  He has been hospitalized more than twenty times over a four-year period.  Daniel hears voices telling him to kill his brother, his mother, and himself.  He has seen “bodies lying on the floor” and “demons flying in the sky.”  Daniel sometimes punches walls and cuts his arms to deflect the voices he hears.  He takes five medications to “regulate his mood swings, control his anxiety, and tamp down the episodes of psychosis.”  At times Stephanie has blamed herself for Daniel’s behavior and felt like she “hated” her son, but now she realizes it’s the illness she hates.  In the beginning when she tried to explain Daniel’s diagnosis with friends and family, Stephanie faced reactions of “fear, disbelief, prejudice, and ignorance.”  After Daniel’s suicide attempt, her family no longer ignores “the severity of his illness.”  Now Stephanie realizes that “one person who loves you can make all the difference,” that “people judge,” and that “complete strangers could make a difference if only they understood.”  As a board member of the San Antonio chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Stephanie actively tells her story to encourage other families living with the illness and to educate the public, especially those lacking understanding or experience with the illness.

mental health statistics

Mental health has been marginalized in the U. S. and the mentally ill ignored.  The statistics show the epidemic proportions of mental illness in our country, and the sorry state of expenditures for mental health where we live in Texas.  From experience I know that there are illnesses of the body and illnesses of the mind. Both are equally real and often unavoidable.  We research cures for cancer, but what about mental illness?  Do you ever hear of anyone walking for a cure?  There must be a brighter future for 75 million Americans.

Since my son’s diagnosis with paranoid schizophrenia in November of 2010, I have been paying closer attention to national tragedies and mass shootings.  Do you remember Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown?  Each time, the shooter’s photo flashed across the television screen, I saw a little of my son, the light missing from their eyes. 

On January 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot 19 people in Tucson, Arizona, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Gifford. At age 22 with a legally purchased Glock pistol, he fired 31 shots in approximately 30 seconds. Six of his victims died.  I remember seeing his photo on TV, his smug expression and apparent lack of remorse. As I listened to accounts of his bizarre behavior on the news, I said to myself, he has schizophreniaAfter his arrest, the diagnosis was confirmed by doctors. Why had no one understood the severity of Loughner’s illness until it was too late?  Could this tragedy have been prevented?  Loughner was judged competent to stand trial, pled guilty on 19 counts of murder and attempted murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.  Gun control dominated the national conversation.

On July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes killed 12 and injured 70 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where he set off gas or smoke canisters and then opened fire.  Hearing the story and seeing his photo, I recognized the illness.  He had met with at least three mental health professionals before the massacre, and one psychiatrist reported that Holmes had made homicidal statements. Shouldn’t Holmes have been court ordered into psychiatric treatment at that point?  Instead, he purchased an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-gauge shot gun, a .40 caliber Glock handgun, another pistol, and 6000 rounds of ammunition. Holmes was 24-years-old. Could this tragedy have been prevented?  From the beginning of the tragedy until Holmes’s life sentence without parole in 2015, our national conversation centered on gun control.  

On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza killed his mother at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school along with 20 children and 6 educators before committing suicide.  At age 20, Lanza brought three weapons into the school that day: two handguns, a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm, along with a semi-automatic Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16 assault rifle, banned by federal law in 1994, which expired in 2004. Lanza left a fourth weapon, a shot gun, in the car.The weapons belonged to his mother. Again, I remember seeing Adam Lanza’s face on the news and thinking, No one in their right mind shoots innocent children. According to FOX news, Peter Lanza said that his son Adam had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder. Autism advocates campaigned to clarify that autism is a brain-related developmental problem and not a mental illness.  Peter Lanza suspects that his son suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia.  He said that he wished his son had never been born and that you can’t “get any more evil.”  Could one person who loved Adam Lanza have made a difference and prevented another tragedy?  Could complete strangers have made a difference if only they had understood?  Once again the national conversation returned to gun control.  Once again mental illness had been marginalized.  Once again the mentally ill ignored.

The stories of Stephanie Escamilla and Crystal Byers and 75 million more families don’t make the headlines.  Unfortunately, the names of a few generate fear, prejudice, and ignorance, stigmatizing the millions who silently suffer behind closed doors.

Let us now fast forward from 2012. Remember Washington Navy Yard? Fort Hood? Charleston? San Bernardino? Orlando? Las Vegas? Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church? Mass shooting after mass shooting, sometimes connected to mental health issues, not always. But how much longer will we talk about weapons reform before laws change? In recent days, the divisive political rhetoric compounds the heartbreak. The us vs. them. The conservatives vs. the liberals. The Democrats vs. the Republicans. The right vs. the left.

I don’t own a gun, but I grew up with them. My dad kept the gun cabinet locked until hunting season arrived and drove me into the country for shooting practice from time to time. A few of my best girlfriends are licensed carriers, and I’m in no way opposed to the right to bear arms. Yesterday, I clicked into a Brené Brown article, “Gun Reform, Speaking the Truth to Bullshit, Practicing Civility, and Effecting Change,” and while thinking about the gun control debate and my own opinion on another seemingly preventable tragedy, I couldn’t agree with her more. Brown says, “I absolutely do support commonsense gun laws. I believe in rigorous background checks and waiting periods. I don’t believe that it should be legal to sell automatic weapons, large magazines, or armor–piercing bullets. I don’t believe in campus carry.” Let’s practice civility and take action for change. The time is now to make both mental health and gun reform a national priority, not after another national tragedy.

If you are like me, grappling with the weight of another senseless mass shooting, wondering how to make a difference, listen to my friend Heather Haines: “Use your powerful voices. Call your representatives today https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative and explain that this current climate of gun violence is unacceptable, so they understand their constituents are a bigger force than the NRA lobby. Join the common sense Every Town for Gun Safety https://everytown.org/ which provides tangible ways to act. Please. Don’t just do it for your own families, but for families in every city, big and small, urban and rural, across the country. Yours is a powerful voice. Please use it.”

*An AR-15 is not an automatic weapon. It is semi-automatic. However, with tiny needle-nosed bullets weighing less than four grams and traveling almost three times as fast as the speed of light, this weapon was designed for “maximum wound effect.” According to Rolling Stone, “As the bullet strikes the body, the payload of kinetic energy rips open a cavity inside the flesh–essentially inert space–which collapses back in on itself, destroying inelastic tissue, including nerves, blood vessels, and vital organs…Gunmakers–emboldened by Congress and cloaked in the second amendment –have elevated the AR-15 into an avatar of civilian manhood, independence, and patriotism…the National Rifle Association now simply calls the AR-15 ‘America’s Rifle.'” Automatic? Semi-automatic? These weapons still suck.

Peace