That Time When I Fell on My Face

Fridays at school usually go something like this.

“Happy Friday, you guys!” I say as each class begins.

A chorus of voices, practically singing, respond on cue, “It’s Fun Fact Friday!”

Fun Fact Friday just sort of happened this year. One Friday during the Fall semester, I said, “Fun fact,” and in the pause, all eyes spun toward me, and I had a captivated audience. I proceeded to tell my students a little something about my life. They loved it, and now every Friday their voices ring out, “Fun Fact Friday!”

Last Friday’s Fun Fact:  

“So this is my twentieth year to teach,” I said. “I have a fact from about twenty years ago during my first few years of teaching when I was young, right?” I try to make eye contact with all of them as I speak. “So when I first started teaching, I taught seventh graders for five years. Then I taught freshmen for a couple of years and sophomores for most of my years, and this is my third year to have juniors. Anyway, do you remember having really fun assemblies back in middle school?”

A sea of heads bobbed up and down.

“Well, at my school, we had a traveling trampoline show with four or five trampolines in the gym, and music, and people jumping really high and flipping. It was the best assembly ever. The kids loved it. Anyway, at the end, they asked for volunteers to come down and flip.” I raised my hand as if to portray how a person volunteers.

“And so I did. I ran down from the bleachers and jumped up on the trampoline. I’m not sure the last time I had been on a trampoline or the last time I had flipped, but I was a gymnast when I was younger, and twenty years ago I was still young, right? So I took a couple of bounces and went for it.” I paused to add a little drama. “And do you know what happened?”

Their faces conveyed expectation.

“I landed on my face.”

“Awww!” They responded in unison, mouths twisting, heads shaking back and forth, half-way disbelieving the horror and fully empathizing.

“This was a big middle school, and I fell on my face in front of about 500 students AND teachers AND administrators.” I shook my head up and down to verify the truth. “But do you know what I did?”

“You quit your job?” One boy jested.

“No.” I laughed and shook my head back and forth. “No. I got up,” I said with my index finger pointed upward. I looked at my kids looking at me, I felt my face flash red reliving this embarrassing moment, and I resolved to use it. “I got up,” my number one finger punctuated those words, “and I did it again, and do you know what happened?”

Their faces bore uncertainty and fear of the worst-case scenario.

“I landed that—.” I censored myself before I said shit, at the same time cut off by a thunder of student cheers. “And that’s what life is all about,” I continued, caught a little off guard by their response, louder now, “You will fall down on your face throughout your life, but you have to get up and try again.”

And the next time. You will land that shit.

Monday Motivation

Let’s face it. Motivation doesn’t come naturally for most of us. I reached this conclusion while lounging in my bed this past, overcast, 40 ̊ Saturday morning. With the weekend luxury of sleeping later than usual, I awoke to the pale gray light of day, thanked God for my cozy room, and reached for my phone on the nightstand while maintaining my horizontal position. Scrolling and reading, I stumbled onto an Instagram post from @SilverDisobedience aka @DianGriesel, an ageless supermodel and behavior journalist. Look her up, (or click the link above), and be inspired. Anyway, she wrote about focusing on the positives—in people, including ourselves, and our situations. She said, “If you’re not the ruler of your thoughts, who is?”

As a collector of deep thoughts, I tapped Dian’s words into a note on my phone, and then I tapped in my own: “If you’re not behind your own actions, who is?”

I considered my own thoughts and promises to myself and actions taken in 2019. Four weeks ago, I joined a boxing gym, which is completely ironic since I had quietly turned my back on all-things-cardio for almost a year and a half. Anyway, I promised myself a workout there three times a week for three months, and Saturday morning would make my third time for the week. I wasn’t exactly trying to backout on myself, but I can’t say I bounced out of bed with glee. I dressed with a little reluctance for the 11 AM kickboxing class. But—I did it. I went to a class for the 12th time in four weeks.

The Saturday morning instructor Salatu is a beast. I mean, if I had a six pack of anything other than beer in the fridge, I would show it off, too. During February, he is challenging us to do 500 crunches every day, and his classes meet the intensity of that challenge with lots of spinning jumps and jumping kicks and jumping squats, with approximately thirteen minutes of reverse crunches to finish us off. Salatu sets the bar high, and on cue when I want to quit, he yells, “Bring the energy. Bring the Chi. Bring the energy. Bring the Chi.” And so I do my best. The best I can do is show up and try and head to the water fountain when I’m feeling asthmatic. And you know what? Each time, I’m a little stronger than before. And I have to admit, I feel quite amazing.  

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?


Then Fall, Mrs. Byers!

It was a day like any other day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of revision and the next phase of the assignment while traversing every inch of the classroom.

“Just because I marked up your papers doesn’t mean that they are terrible,” I said as I as I handed students their work.

Passing back the first essay of the year always breaks my heart. Their faces reveal disappointment, so I try to soften the blow. “I enjoyed reading your stories. We can all improve our writing—I know I can. Overall, we need to work on more action verbs, so I marked your ‘Be’ verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. Oh, and get, got, getting, gotten, which are informal verbs. We tend to overuse them when we could be more specific. I want you to listen carefully. We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get’ in our daily language. Did you hear what I said? I said, ‘We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get.’ That’s just how we talk. But listen again. We can eliminate—the word ‘get’ in our writing.” I slowed down the word ‘eliminate,’ enunciating each syllable, pausing with some drama and a small smile in hopes they processed my point. “Did you see what I just did? ‘Eliminate’ and ‘get rid of’ mean the same thing. ‘Eliminate’ sounds more sophisticated, which is what we want as juniors in high school, heading to college, right?”  

A sea of heads bobbed up and down in agreement as I continued passing out papers.

“Many of you wrote about some heavy, life-changing events that could be really nice college entrance essays. Universities want to know who you are and how you have become that person, so I want you all to have essays saved that are your personal best. That’s why we are revising. To revise means ‘to reconsider’ and ‘to alter.’ Some of you may have written four pages, and by the way, college entrance essays usually have a word limit, but a memoir should be just a moment in time. I want you to work on showing me versus telling me. Some of you could cut quite a bit and then explode the details of one moment.”

Speaking of a single moment, my left foot stepped on to a backpack which started a slow-motion slide across the tile floor, my foot along for the ride. All of my weight shifted, and I heard myself saying in rapid-fire succession, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if I had stepped on a child. I could do nothing to prevent the fall. I remember my unsuccessful attempt at catching myself and the soft thud of my right knee making contact with the hard tile. I remember sitting on the floor wondering why ‘sorry’ in triplicate had issued forth from my mouth and wishing for wittier words mid fall—“Et tu, backpack? Then fall, Mrs. Byers.” I remember feeling thankful for wearing pants that day and wondering how I could gracefully stand once more and continue teaching.

My class very politely stifled their laughter, as I gathered my composure and rose as if on wings with strength and dignity. The owner of the offending backpack said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said on two feet once more, papers still in hand.

I remember another student making eye contact and saying, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I said. “All but my ego. Thank you for asking.”

Somehow I carried on. It was the last class of the day, and somehow I didn’t die of humiliation. Somehow I made it home, where I examined my knee for a bruise and found none. I would be okay.

A day or two passed before I finally told Kody, and as suspected, he burst out laughing, the hearty, contagious kind that made me giggle, too. “You’ve gotta admit. That’s funny as shit,” he said.

Okay, I admit it. 

vince lombardi

Here’s one more for a Monday morning…

 

Ms. M.

At my new school, Ms. M. sits behind the desk in the front office, where I sign in each morning. With a genuine smile and a voice like honey, she says things like, “Baby, you just let me know if you need anything,” just like I’ve known her forever, never mind it has just been a few weeks.

Words Have Power

It was Friday morning, the end of the first week of my 20th year as a teacher, the end of the first week back after summer vacation for students. As I documented my time and penned my initials, Ms. M. perched behind her desk, a few other teachers milled around, and a dad stormed into the office, setting a laptop case in front of Ms. M. “The idiot forgot his laptop,” he said.

Ms. M.’s eyes darted toward us teachers, then back to the dad, “Sir,” she said with complete composure and calm, pausing, possibly gathering her thoughts, or now that I think of it, probably censoring them. “Don’t call him that.” She looked him square in his eyes. “At this school, he’s a good kid.” She punctuated the statement with emphasis on good kid, and she didn’t leave it there. “Do not call him names.” The pause grew as the father’s cheeks flushed. “He’s your son, and everyone makes mistakes. I’ll make sure he gets this.”

everyone makes mistakes

He stammered some, not quite apologizing, definitely at a loss for words, and then sort of slunk away.

And on that day, Ms. M. showed me exactly the person she is, the person I aspire to be.

Be Somebody
Everyday is a fresh start.

 

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.

 

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

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. 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, patients and families tend to either hide or deny 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 our 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.