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

In recent years I’ve claimed to be a mental health advocate…except that I’ve skirted the details of my story, which is like a raw wound, easily agitated and painful. May is Mental Health Month, AKA Mental Health Awareness Month, and so I remember another May day, eight years ago, and the beginning of our journey towards help, hope, and understanding.

************

My cell phone vibrated, and I glanced down.  The text message popping up from my son Drew said, “There’s something wrong with my brain.”

I don’t remember my response to the text I will never forget.  One, I had stopped for happy hour with my husband Kody after work; two, this happened a couple of cell phones ago, the text thread long gone.  I can only imagine that I probably replied along the lines of—Let’s talk. I’ll be home after awhile.  

Kody and I didn’t rush home with concern.  We arrived home later that evening to find Drew sealed away behind his closed bedroom door, lights off, as if to say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”  The discussion waited as did we.

The next morning, I suggested breakfast out.  Kody, Drew, and I drove to a neighborhood diner.  Amid the cadence of background conversations, the clinks of silverware to plate contact, and the aroma of good coffee, we sat in awkward silence while waiting for food and Drew to provide extra details. The sunlight streamed through the blinds of the windows as breakfast arrived, and Kody said, “Son, we wanted to talk with you.  What’s going on?”

Drew’s eyes narrowed as he stabbed his omelet, “Don’t you think there is something wrong with me?  You don’t remember the time I ran into the fence?  You don’t remember that big lump on my head?”  I didn’t remember the fence incident, and neither did Kody.  Drew’s tone implied we were idiots for forgetting, and he told his story as if he had said these words a million times.  “I stole some beer at Walmart, and someone caught me.  So I dropped the beer and ran out of the store as fast as I could.  I ran full-speed, head-first into a fence.  Full speed.  I had a huge lump.”  He touched the right side of his fore head with five fingertips, indicating the location and size of the injury.  “You don’t remember?”

The beer theft/head injury had occurred two years earlier, Drew’s senior year of high school.  I tried to visualize the episode.  There are no fences directly outside of our neighborhood Walmart, so I couldn’t picture him running full speed into a fence.  If he had escaped through the front door, he would have had to run a considerable distance before encountering the said fence. My thoughts raced faster than I could ever recall Drew running.  How could anyone run full speed and oblivious of an oncoming fence?  I didn’t remember the big lump, but that was during a time when I didn’t see much of Drew. Possibly the lump was bigger in Drew’s mind and I had overlooked a smaller lump, or maybe my memory just fails.  I searched my now-guilt-ridden brain, recollecting an enormous lump during sixth grade from a no-helmets-football-game-gone-wrong with the neighbors across the street.  Then my thoughts returned to Drew’s first question, ‘Don’t you think something is wrong with me?’

Deep down, yes. I knew.  Something wasn’t quite right.  Long ago I stuffed the notion down and out of sight. Now Drew knew, even though he wouldn’t elaborate. In Drew’s mind, his two-year-old head injury lingered, and time called for a doctor.

At home for the summer, Drew had spent the past year at West Texas A and M, where he had auditioned for the orchestra, received a full ride as a music major, and studied cello performance. He scored high enough on the English CLEP (College Level Examination Program) to receive credit, his SAT scores rated high enough to waive his college math class, yet he struggled academically.  Whenever I called, he always answered his phone, alone in his dorm room, our conversations, always brief.  I convinced myself that my Drew was an artist, just a little different, the social withdrawal a phase. Maybe drugs were to blame, or possibly he had ADD. However, Drew adamantly believed that he suffered from brain damage.  I could count the number of times he had seen a doctor on one hand, and I could not recall him requesting to see a doctor ever, until that morning.

So began our journey of finding a doctor to identify the problem that Drew had trouble explaining.  Our family doctor, Dr. Terrazas, spoke with Drew and me for approximately fifteen minutes before diagnosing him as bi-polar and writing him a prescription for Lithium.  I wondered if I had led her to that conclusion, and Drew, not satisfied with her conclusion, wanted further testing.  Dr. Terrazas referred us to a neurologist, Dr. Grider, who ordered a CAT (computerized axial tomography) scan.  Weeks later at the follow-up appointment, the images of Drew’s brain revealed no damage, and the neurologist had no answers.  Drew doubted both the bi-polar diagnosis as well as the CAT scan results and pressed forward for further testing.  The neurologist referred us to a neuro-psychiatrist, a Dr. Affatati. The appointment, another month away.

Meanwhile, I furtively observed my son, who confined himself to his room and never spoke on the phone or went out with friends.  He lacked emotion but laughed now and then for no reason at all.  When I attempted a conversation, the dialogue fell flat.  When Drew began the conversation, the topics loomed beyond my comprehension.  He sometimes nodded off in an upright position.  Sometimes his face twitched, his eyes or his mouth, involuntarily.  Drew walked in circles and stretched in repetitive patterns.  My son had changed before my eyes, yet the quirks had become abruptly apparent.

To break his habit of isolation, Drew and I drove to the Oklahoma panhandle to stay with my parents for a week. After a one-on-one day of golf with his Pop, I remember my dad saying, “Crystal, I think it’s a self-esteem problem.”  My dad’s words didn’t settle well, and all that time grew my fear, the unspeakable certainty of something much bigger.  The appointment with the neuro-psychiatrist was still a week away.

On the drive home, we made a quick stop in Canyon, Texas at the university for Drew to check his mail.  Drew had been home since May, and he insisted on checking his mail in July, looking for a package of sheet music that I had sent in February. At the time, this did not register as odd. A grandmotherly lady with horn-rimmed glasses and gray hairs pulled back into a bun at the university post office kindly checked and double checked for the package. “I’m sorry there is nothing here for you.”

Drew maintained composure, but upon exiting the building an air of agitation enveloped him. “That lady was racist,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I replied having no clue why he would say that. “How was she racist?”

“She discriminated against me.” I heard the edge in his voice through gritted teeth, followed by a deep exhale.  “Can I drive?”

I collected my calm and said, “Of course,” hoping a drive on the open road would distract Drew from the dark cloud overshadowing his mood.

The highway home stretched and yawned for three hundred and seventy-six miles as my mild-mannered, soft-spoken son transformed into a bizarre, frantic person behind the wheel.  “Are you racist?” He asked, more accusation than question, his sideways glance revealed suspicion.

Anyone who knows me would think the question strange.  I teach high school English at a diverse suburban school, and I love my students.  I breathed in. I exhaled. I shook my head back and forth. “No, I’m not racist, Drew.”

He raged from one accusation to the next, as if someone held the remote, flipping channels.  “Read your wrung.  What does that mean?  We sped down the highway.

“What?” I thought I had misheard him.

“Read. Your. Wrung.”  Drew slowed the statement, but not the car.  “That’s what you said to Mimi.  She’s a witch.  You’re both witches.”

I braced myself in my seat, knowing without doubt that we had a major problem—not brain damage—a psychological, perhaps psychiatric problem. I didn’t know the difference. He had heard me cast a spell? “No, Drew, we are not witches.”

For six solid hours, Drew expressed suspicions, delusions, and perplexingly incomprehensible thoughts. In my head, we veered full speed into oncoming traffic. I wanted to text my husband, but there was nothing he could do and no textable explanation.  I did not in any way want to heighten Drew’s hysterics.   So, for six solid hours, I prayed to God for our peace, our safety, and our lives.

Once home, Drew retreated to his bedroom, and I pulled Kody into ours and attempted a condensed version of events in hushed tones. None of it made any sense. Explanations failed.  I remember Kody saying, “What the fuck is this shit he is pulling?”  How could I make him understand when I couldn’t even understand?  I sobbed into my wet pillow that night.

The sun rose to a new day, a Sunday.  I felt God’s pull, and I knew that someone at church would pray with me for my family.  Kody held fast to the I’m going to get this thing taken care of mentality, and he confronted Drew head on, “What is your problem?  Why are you doing this to Mom?”  I heard their voices in the living room from my location in the master bathroom.  Kody didn’t understand.  Drew’s behavior wasn’t calculated or malicious.

I eavesdropped from the hallway before entering the living room, where I witnessed the Kody-Drew face-off.  Drew spoke of a grocery cart.  I walked in mid-explanation.  He was either pushing the cart or sitting in it while someone pushed—in the cafeteria while away at school, “People were lined up on both sides of me cheering and screaming,” he said with the same panicky road-trip tone from the day before, stressing the words cheering and screaming. Disconnected thoughts spewed forth, “And when I watch TV, let’s say, I’ve just been reading about comets, then there is something on TV about comets.  It’s like the TV is communicating with me.”  Kody’s eyes flashed at me with a dawning realization.  Reality had slipped from Drew’s grasp like sand.

I left the scene, Kody and his helplessness seared in my mind, father and son alone at an impasse, tears dropping single file into my lap as I drove to Chase Oaks Church.  I entered the building, hiding behind my glasses, hoping to blend into the crowd without anyone noticing the puffed anguish around my eyes. I located a seat amid singing voices while the band played, and when I opened my mouth to sing, the floodgates gave way once more, the torrent of tears, a mix of sadness and fear.  Then came the song I needed to hear.

Everyone needs compassion,

Love that’s never failing;

Let mercy fall on me.

Everyone needs forgiveness,

The kindness of a Saviour;

The Hope of nations.

Saviour, He can move the mountains,

My God is Mighty to save,

He is Mighty to save.

Forever, Author of salvation,

He rose and conquered the grave,

Jesus conquered the grave.

So take me as You find me,

All my fears and failures,

Fill my life again.

I give my life to follow

Everything I believe in,

Now I surrender.

I don’t remember the sermon that morning, but I heard God’s message in the music. God will take my fears, and with Him, there’s hope. Everyone needs compassion. Drew. Kody. Me. Our daughter Lauren, our recent high school graduate dealing with problems of her own and oblivious to Drew’s latest development.

The service concluded with the usual announcement: “Each week we have a group of people waiting at the front to care for you, listen to you, and pray for you.”  For the first time, I found myself drawn to the front of the sanctuary like a moth to the light.  Several people waited there volunteering their time for people like me who needed a shoulder and compassion that day.  I approached a woman with warm brown eyes and an encouraging smile that reminded me of my deceased Granny. We introduced ourselves, and I discovered this woman taught high school English in my district, except at the alternative school.  She held my hands as I told Drew’s story, unsuccessful in my attempt to remain dry eyed.  I would give anything for a recording of that conversation. I would press play over and over to hear her words of comfort and encouragement and prayers for our family, but I will never forget the peace that washed over me or the scripture she gave, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).  Back at home, the rest of the day passed peacefully. Drew retreated to the solitude of his room.

The next day Kody left for work, promising to research help options.  At home, my fears once more grappled with my prayers.  Fears of Drew’s future in a strait jacket vs. prayers to God for power and love and a sound mind for all of us.

Mid-morning my phone rang, and my husband said, “I found a mobile crisis unit for mental health emergencies.  I called them, and they are sending counselors to the house at 2:00.  I’ll be home then.”

Kody took the afternoon off, showing up ahead of time, and together we stood before the picture window in the formal living room, watching and waiting.  Before long, two counselors arrived in a Ford Escort out front.  We hadn’t mentioned our expected guests to Drew. A bearded man probably in his early forties and a younger dark-haired woman holding a folder ambled up the sidewalk, and I opened the door with a hushed, “Thank you for coming,” as they approached the house.

After the introductions, I walked back to Drew’s room and knocked, “Son, you have some visitors here to talk to you.”  Drew opened his door, didn’t ask questions, and followed me to the living room.  Kody had provided background information via phone earlier.

“Hi Drew.  My name is Tommy, and this is Vita.”  On cue, she nodded her head and gave a closed-mouth smile and a wave.  “Your parents invited us here because they have some concerns.  I understand that you’ve had a CAT scan and that you have an appointment for another opinion.  Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Okay,” Drew said while shooting a glance at me and his dad.

Tommy communicated with Drew in a comforting way, better than the family doctor and the neurologist that we had seen so far, and he completed a thorough mental health assessment.  Tommy knew the questions to ask, Drew opened up, and the sidekick Vita silently transcribed the meeting.  Tommy asked about drug usage and alcohol, and Drew admitted, “I’ve smoked pot and done some mushrooms.  Once I smoked with some people at school, and my arms went up in the air like this.”  Drew lifted his arms above his head to show us, his hands hung limp at the wrists, “and they were frozen there. They were frozen for a while, like hours, and everyone was laughing. I think whatever we were smoking might have been laced with something, but I don’t know. I don’t drink though.”

Tommy said, “Smoking pot can sometimes trigger a person to see or hear things that aren’t there.”  His tone was matter-of-fact and non-condescending.  He spoke as if this type of thing happened to people all the time.  I remember him asking, “Drew, have you experienced a recent death of anyone close to you?”

Drew broke down and wept, “My best friend Ryan.”  Drew and Ryan played soccer together on the Stars in kindergarten, and although they went to different elementary schools, their team stayed together through third grade, and they attended middle school and high school together.  I recollect a handful of play dates when they were younger, but as they grew older, they ran in separate groups. Ryan’s death was a heartbreaking accident and tragedy of appalling proportions. As long as we had known the Woolf family, they loved going to their lake house.  Ryan and his dad Don went cliff diving over the extended Fourth of July weekend. Ryan jumped and never resurfaced.  Don jumped in to save him, but he didn’t reappear either, a tragedy of appalling proportions. Our hearts still break for our friend Pat, Ryan’s mom and Don’s wife, and Ryan’s brother Cameron. This happened the summer of 2007 before Drew’s senior year, three years before this interview with Tommy and Vita.

Tommy probably spent about an hour with Drew in our living room, and Drew’s demeanor calmed from the previous days.  As the session ended, Tommy provided names of therapists for Drew as well as the names of a few psychiatrists.  The crisis had been averted for the moment, and Drew wasn’t interested in any therapy, so I continued to count the days to the highly-anticipated appointment with the neuro-psychiatrist.

After the encouraging experience with the mobile counselor, the appointment with the neuro-psychiatrist disappointed.  Kody and I sat in on the session expecting explanations, but the doctor was quick and direct.  He spent a brief time alone with Drew before meeting with Kody and me alone.  Looking back, I wouldn’t dream of seeing a doctor without a notepad, writing down everything and asking questions when needing clarification, but at the time, I was a rookie. New game. I remember explaining to the doctor, “Drew’s speech patterns have changed, he’s more monotone now, and he rarely smiles, but then he laughs randomly—like an inside joke with himself.”

The neuropsychiatrist reflected and paused, “His affect is off.”  He offered no diagnosis but used the word “psychosis” and spoke of a “thought disorder” to label Drew’s recent episodes. “I want you to follow up with Dr. Watson.” He wrote down his name and the name of the clinic.  “He’s a psychiatrist.”  The appointment came to an abrupt and anti-climactic end.  Kody drove back to work. Drew and I returned home. I plopped down on the couch, opened my laptop, and Googled:

Thought disorder:  a term used to describe incomprehensible language, either in speech or writing, which is presumed to reflect thinking. There are different types. For example, language may be difficult to understand if it switches quickly from one unrelated idea to another or if it is very delayed at reaching its goal or if words are inappropriately strung together resulting in gibberish.

I lifted my eyes from the screen and stared at the ivory paint on the wall ahead.  The Wikipedia definition described the gibberish of read your wrung and the onslaught of disconnected ideas during the recent road trip.

I resumed my investigation, typing:  affect.  I found definitions connected to the experience of feelings and emotions and continued searching.

Flat affect:  A severe reduction in emotional expressiveness. People with depression and schizophrenia often show flat affect.  A person with schizophrenia may not show the signs of normal emotion, perhaps may speak in a monotonous voice, have diminished facial expressions, and appear extremely apathetic.  Also known as blunted affect.

Depression, okay.  I thought.  Schizophrenia?  Really?  I considered the MedicineNet.com definition as I reflected on Drew’s daily demeanor.

Again, I flashed back to the road trip.  I had flipped the radio station to classical in hopes the music would calm him, and Drew started giggling at the sound of the staccato piano.  I remember asking, “What’s so funny?”

He said, “It was a hippopotamus in a tutu tip toeing to the music.”  The thought was fleeting, sandwiched between hysterical, unrelated ideas.  I caught myself staring at the flash of a few specks of dust dancing in thin air, sparkling in the shards of sunlight streaming through the window. I continued Googling.

Psychosis: a loss of contact with reality, usually including false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations).

My laptop was hot, and so was my lap.  On the National Institute of Health’s website, produced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, I found a definition for psychosis below the subtitle Major Depression with Psychotic Features.  I wondered if Drew had major depression.  Why did he spend so much time in his room alone?  He rarely smiled a genuine smile.  I thought about the witch and racist accusations. I remembered the grocery cart episode in the cafeteria at school. Again, staring at my screen but focused on nothing, I found myself shaking my head, No.  I closed my laptop and slid it under the couch.

Six months passed, and five doctors later, no one had answers, no one was willing to diagnose.  After the neuro-psychiatrist, Drew saw a regular psychiatrist, who referred us to a psychologist.  We had seen each doctor once and to no avail.

In the middle of our unsuccessful quest for help, Kody, Drew, and I opted for a family night at the movie.  Lauren kept her own agenda.  We decided on Megamind, a computer-animated comedy named after the super-intelligent alien supervillain, who transforms into a superhero.  We arrived late to a packed theater and shrunk into our seats a few rows from the front.  Behind us sat a young mom and a row of little girls, probably around age eight, probably there for a birthday party. In the darkness, we ate popcorn and laughed, and I silently celebrated the moment of normalcy.

Once home, Drew spouted, “I guess you didn’t see that lady sitting behind me blowing cocaine into my face?”

“You mean the lady sitting with those little girls?”

“Yeah, you didn’t see that?”

“No, Drew, I didn’t see that.”

That night drugs continued to seep through the vents of his bedroom.  Because of the toxic air, Drew couldn’t stay in his room, and he checked himself into the hospital for the first time.  He packed a bag, and I drove.  I’m not sure he knew that it was a psychiatric hospital, but he wanted more than anything to escape the poison of his bedroom.  Within the next couple of days came the long-awaited, much-anticipated diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia.  By this time we had witnessed text-book examples of symptoms and read enough to understand the possibilities.

Even though Drew initially said, “There’s something wrong with my brain,” for the next five years he denied the diagnosis and refused medication.  He preferred brain damage to schizophrenia.  I don’t blame him.  Stigma has a firm hold on mental illnesses.  Without open discussions about mental health issues, people—patients and families—tend to feel shame, sometimes hiding, sometimes denying the truth.  Medication non-compliance remains a common problem among patients with brain disorders.  The paranoia causes trust issues, and Drew believed for many years that the medicine is poison.  Without medication, patients often become psychotic again and cycle back into the hospital.  Consequently, Drew was hospitalized three different times for approximately three months of his life within the first year of his diagnosed brain disorder.

I’ve never known a parent of a child with cancer to hide the illness from friends, family, and co-workers, but in the beginning, that’s what I did. I couldn’t talk about it. For me, it wasn’t shame. It was grief. It took years for me to be able to discuss details with my closest friends and family without breaking down. I still cry for Drew. Kody and Lauren do, too. Our family has lost much, but Drew has lost the most: his former self, relationships, and ambitions. The pain hangs like a dark, heavy cloud.  During that first year of hospitalizations, it took all I had to put on a happy face all day long in front of my high school students. Many times I would run into someone who knows Drew and would ask about him. Many times I would say something like: “Drew’s okay.  He’s not in school.  He’s trying to figure out his life.”  Somehow this explanation seemed simpler.  I didn’t say it out of secrecy.  This insidious brain disorder had hijacked my son’s life.  Many times, I would make it out of the grocery store or out of school and into my car just in time for the cloud to burst. I would pound the steering wheel with my fists and sob over the substantial interference of the illness on Drew’s life, on all our lives. As I’m coming to terms with the new normal, part of me thinks that maybe my job is to fight the stigma and to help others understand that there are illnesses of the body and illnesses of the mind.  Both are equally real and often unavoidable. There is no shame in illness, and I continue to pray—for health, hope, and understanding.  And I believe in miracles.

Mental Illness

People continue to ask, “How is Drew?” So I’ll be dedicating my May posts to mental health awareness and the millions who silently suffer from brain disorders.

Q is for Quirk and 5 is for…

I have this quirk. Okay, I’m sure I have more than one, but today I only admit to this—I count. Not as in I matter. Of course, I know I do. We all do. I’m talking numbers here. Sometimes in ascending order. Sometimes descending. Compulsively and obsessively. I find myself counting the number of essays I have left in my grading stack, even when eleven remain, I’ll grade the next, forget the number eleven, and re-count. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. I find myself counting the stairs to the third-floor room at the La Quinta. Almost daily. Two flights of sixteen equals thirty-two. I find myself counting the stairs to my second-floor room at school. Two flights of eleven equals twenty-two.  When I walk at a brisk pace, I find myself counting off my steps by eights. I attribute that to sixteen years of dance lessons with five life-shaping instructors: Charlene Blackmore, Gayla Smith, Billie Grabeal, Norma Ansley (God rest her beautiful soul), and Claudia Winters. If any of you are reading, when the music is good, I still dance. Anyway, speaking of five…I passed the five-week mark of second semester and the five-month mark at my beloved La Quinta. I use beloved sincerely. These past five months I’ve learned minimalism and grown content here, where I sit on a king-sized bed, propped up on pillows, with my man and my dog in approximately 300 square feet. These past five months when I call Kody after work each day, I’ve learned to conjure Ricky Ricardo and say, “Hi Honey. I’m home.” Home. It’s where the heart is. And each day Rain, the sweetest eight-pound dog in the world, proves that maxim at the door with her big smile and waggedy tail. And each day, Kody and I try to prove it to each other with understanding of each other’s moods, a caress, and an unexpected kiss when life tries to stand in the way of our good time.

Dad and Rain
So much love in those eyes.

Daily I drive past the homeless stationed by the traffic light near the overpass, not far down the access road from our temporary home: the Hispanic man on crutches with an amputated leg and a smile, selling M and M’s, a tall, thin African-American man who washes windshields for spare cash, an aging white man with John Lennon glasses and a long, grizzly beard, holding his cardboard sign, “Disabled Vietnam Veteran. Anything helps. God Bless.” I give away my cash when I have it, and these people of the street without fail will look into my eyes and say, “God Bless You.” A few dollars for a blessing from God. I wish I could do more. Some will impart their wisdom, and I find the words of a man with a deeply tanned and weathered face echoing in my memory. With his pale blue eyes locked on mine, he said, “Happiness is a choice. You can wake up each day and choose to be happy.” Then he turned to Drew in the car with me on our way to see his doctor. “Stay in school, young man, so this doesn’t happen to you.” I think to myself, he saw right through me, and I ponder his attitude against all odds. I know he’s right. My dad always said the same thing. I think about the tent under the overpass near home and wonder how many of those familiar faces huddle there at night as temperatures drop. No doubt they would be grateful for five months with a roof over their heads, a dry room with a heater, a bed with pillows to spare, a hot shower with soap and shampoo, a complimentary breakfast with hot coffee. I feel fortunate—and grateful.

For anyone new to my blog, Welcome and let me fill you in! And to all of you reading, thank you for your interest in my excerpted life. I’m humbled by over 2300 views since September and readers who have stumbled upon my words from all over the world—Romania, the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, Indonesia, Russia, China, Malaysia, Australia, Japan, Ukraine, Cameroon, Moldova, Vietnam, Indonesia, Canada, and the good ol’ USA. I see you, like the homeless man saw me. And like him, I pass the torch of his message to you in hopes you keep the fire alive and pass it forward. I wish I knew his name. If I see him again, I’ll let him know he is making a difference from the streets of Houston. 

On August 27, we evacuated to the pet-friendly La Quinta when the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey invaded our Houston home, and well, rebuilding takes time. And—so does mold remediation. These past five months, after many-a-bleach treatment, four mold tests, removing all remaining items from the house, including all cabinets, the bathtub, and the shower, knocking out more walls and the ceiling in places, cleaning the air ducts, pouring a new concrete subfloor throughout the house, and painting all studs within the exposed walls with a mold barrierWE PASSED OUR MOLD INSPECTION!!!In five months’ time, I’ve watched my androgynously short hair grow less androgynous and my over-sized ass shrink in size in the mirror before my eyes. Growing and shrinking takes time, and you know what else takes time? Settling with our insurance company. Soon after the flood, our insurance adjuster had flown in from the east coast to assist with the influx of claims in Houston. He inspected our home when it still had floors and cabinets and bathroom fixtures, all of which ended up curbside in a moldy mass after his visit. Early on our insurance company shot us a ridiculously low-ball number to settle, and we hired Kelly, an experienced public adjuster to help us battle Lloyd’s of London, who holds our flood insurance policy. We compiled a massive itemized list of our losses and tracked down proof of purchases where we could. Lloyd’s countered again with a number twice as high as the first number, but still less than the cost to cover our damages, so we requested to have another adjuster come out to the house. A little over a week ago, that meeting happened with Kody, Kelly, and the new Lloyd’s guy. Kody told me later, “I just kept my mouth shut and let Kelly take care of it, but it went really well. This guy was local, so he knows what people have been through and sees it all the time. He feels it. Our first adjuster mis-diagrammed the house, and this guy found other mistakes and agreed with a lot of what Kelly said. He said they would let us know something as soon as possible.”

Paint Colors
What do you think of St. Bart’s for the front door?.

Meanwhile, we wait and hope and proceed the best we can. Kody and I received an advance from our to-be-determined insurance settlement, and we have taken out an SBA loan for work to progress at home. New electrical—check. New plumbing—check. Insulation and drywall in progress. We selected Sherwin Williams colors and painted the outside of the house: the bricks Neutral Ground, the siding and garage door Dorian Gray, the trim Urbane Bronze, front door to be determined. From the street our home shouts, “Look! My people gave me a makeover, but I’m still mid-mod at heart.”  We plan for new outdoor lighting and landscaping once construction is complete. Photos to come, but don’t hold your breath. Rebuilding takes time. Yet I see the light at the end of the tunnel and much excitement ahead. As I count down the days to our sixth month at the La Quinta and check off the days of the upcoming sixth week of the second semester, I look forward—to cooking in my own kitchen, to sleeping in my brand-new bed, to showering in my brand-new shower, to relaxing in an actual living room, oh, and to Spring Break.

I propose you practice joy.

This kid spoke to me on Facebook (but that link was deleted, so click on this one). Listen to him for two minutes. From the mouth of a child, “I propose you practice joy.” From the mouth of my dad, “Crystal, you can choose your attitude.” From the mouth of a homeless man who reminded me again on a dark day, “Happiness is a choice. You can wake up each day and choose to be happy.” And about that 5? It represents what I would like to call my past tendency to obsess over the things I cannot control and my new intention to stay focused on the following five: Faith, Gratitude, Peace, Hope, and Joy. I choose all five, and I will continue to practice.

“What do you practice?”

Advice from 2017 Crystal: A Top Ten List (With a Bonus)

Returning to school this past week after a rejuvenating holiday, I had an action plan to keep my mind right with a simple formula of God and gratitude. Monday started strong, but by Friday, my positivity was shot to Hell. Ironically, I missed my devotional that day, and I may or may not have been nursing a hangover. I haven’t mastered the art of not allowing people and circumstances to suck the good mojo right out of me.

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The devotional that would have saved my week.  His name will redirect my thoughts.

Thankfully I had pre-packed my bags and loaded my Mazda for an overnight stay in Dallas with a couple of my forever friends, if you call 38-43 years forever, before driving on to Oklahoma to visit family. With ample time to think while disentangling myself from Houston traffic, I reflected on my own best advice for those times when life fails to go my way:

  1. Talk to God and trust him (That Time When I Met Harvey).
  2. Ask for help when necessary and accept it when people offer (The Most Humbling Part of Harvey).
  3. Wait and hope (Wait and Hope and Other Mantras).
  4. At times you must dismantle to rebuild (And Rebuilding Takes Time).
  5. Seek inspiration (Eyes Open and Seeking).
  6. Surround yourself with positive energy (Flawed but Still Trying and The Power of Positivity).
  7. When God speaks, listen (A Divine Intervention).
  8. Practice gratitude (The Deep Sapphire Blue of the Mediterranean Sea).
  9. Love Liberates (Five Years before I Said, “I Do.” Also, Love Liberates).
  10. True friends nurture the soul (A Life You Want and Eyes Open and Seeking).
  11. Forgiveness and kindness reverse worst case scenarios (How to Deal with a Purse Snatcher).
  12. Through challenges we learn and grow in strength and wisdom (Goodbye, Beef Pot Pie).

Pre-divorce, I needed a psychologist. Mine came highly recommended by two different teacher friends after having a meltdown or two at school. I’m flashing back about fourteen years, which seems a lifetime ago. Through counseling, I became more self-aware and discovered my role in my own life. Each session, Dr. Stevenson probed, I verbally processed, and my eyes malfunctioned with a non-stop leak. Through her questions and my answers, I became conscious of my guarded nature, my inability to speak of heavy things, and my inclination to stuff my feelings. The doctor listened more than she spoke, but I’ll never forget her saying, “Crystal, don’t you have any friends?”

And me sobbing, “No!”

And her saying, “You’ve got to open up to people.”

In the first fourteen years of my marriage, we had lived in three states and moved five times. I had attended one junior college, two universities, and worked at eight different jobs. My friendships and relationships in general were surface level, in part due to continual change. Dr. Stevenson’s advice was pivotal. Slowly and over time, I made meaningful bonds by sharing my truth.  

Denise and I met at age five when I crashed her birthday party. K-12, we shared many teachers, birthday parties, and childhood memories. After high school, our lives diverged, but at our twenty-year high school reunion, we discovered we lived within twenty minutes of each other in the Dallas area. One dinner at a time, one text message at a time, over months and months, then years and years, Denise learned all my deep-dark secrets, and I learned hers. Neither one of us judged. I was her vault, and she was mine.

Pamela entered the montage of my life in the fifth grade. From humble beginnings, she put herself through school at Notre Dame, sending me ND baby booties for Drew and letters from India when she studied abroad. Somehow before cell phones, we always maintained our connection even as her life led her from one adventure to the next. We reconnected on Facebook when she lived in NYC, and she flew from her home in Miami to mine in Dallas when I remarried Kody. Now living in the wild west near Waco, Pamela, Denise, and I have formed a trio of Mutual Admiration.

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11/11/11 wedding celebration with my forever friends.

After my extra-long drive from Houston to Dallas, I beat myself up in front of my friends through the rehashing of my day, and by the end of the night, I felt renewed strength. On Saturday morning, before I departed for OKC, I asked Denise and Pamela, “So what are your take-aways from our time together?”

Pamela responded, “Flowers don’t blossom every day. They have their season. I learned that from Glennon Doyle Melton. Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ll be right back.” She returned with gifts, wrapped in gold tissue paper, for both Denise and me.

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A book from Pamela. Have I mentioned being a Brene Brown fan?

I look back on this weekend and laugh out loud. Pamela observes with a keen eye and knows me well.  Apparently, our journeys are similar, and by ‘our’ I mean, all of us. I don’t know about you, but I seem to need some reminders, so I pass them along, just in case.

Pamela continued, “I’m also reminded of something that Tony Robbins said…” Whatever Tony Robbins said was good, something about being self-consumed, but I didn’t write it down, so I quickly forgot. The three of us said our goodbyes with hugs and vows to see each other again soon.

I trekked on to Oklahoma City to visit my precious mother in memory care, my super hero dad, who makes the ten-hour round trip each weekend, my sort-of cool brother Scott and his awesome wife Gerri, who have quite possibly worn their very own ruts on the road between Stillwater and OKC, and my closest cousin Angie, who would have a guest room, a bottle of wine, and a hot tub waiting for me at the end of the day. Of course, I kid about my bro. From my standpoint, he plays the role of son, husband, father, and brother like a pro. And Angie and I, well, we solved all the world’s problems in our swimsuits in her backyard, oblivious to the 29  ̊of a January night. < span style=”color: #000000; font-family: Calibri”>On Sunday morning, I joined my parents for church, at my mom’s assisted living community. We sang “God Will Take Care of You” and listened to a sermon about three Jewish men: Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego from the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar had the men bound and thrown into his furnace for refusing to worship an oversized gold statue. The three men told the king that God would deliver them. Sure enough, the king looked into the furnace and saw four men, not three, and then commanded Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego to come out of the furnace. The men were no longer bound, and they were untouched by fire. In the end, King Nebuchadnezzar does a 180  ̊turn around and praises the God of the Jews for sending an angel to rescue the men. God took care of Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego, just as I know he will take care of me.

God's card
My dad handed me God’s card when I arrived on Saturday.

My visits with Mom are always too short and too sweet. Especially as her memories fade, I cherish those moments until our time ends abruptly, and I find myself once more behind the wheel. Time and time again, I feel most bolstered by my family and friends only to set myself up for a fall, right back into my pity party. Wah! From the road, I shot Pam and Denise a text: “Remind me what Tony Robbins said, Pamela. Something about thinking about yourself.” She responded, “The fastest way to misery is making everything about you.” The End

Goodbye, Beef Pot Pie

Does anyone else feel that we somehow time-warped to the year 2018? Not only that, but where did the first week go? I’m not really a New Year-New Me, type-of-a-girl, but the English teacher in me loves some good symbolism, you know, new beginnings and fresh starts, goodbye to the old and hello to better.

At The Queen Vic Pub and Kitchen on New Year’s Eve, I said goodbye to 2017 with a beef pot pie. For the last eight months, I’ve refrained from meat and for the past six, dairy, too. I can’t say I crave either. The substitutions amaze me, and I love my vegetables. I started 2017 with an extra twenty pounds and a cholesterol problem. I ended it without. Victory. The plant-based diet has been good to me, and the beef pot pie was more of a ceremony than a necessity, sort-of-a I can do what I want, and you are quite lovely, butI think it’s best to leave you here in 2017. The pot pie represents some other heavy baggage I’ve carried. Goodbye baggage. You are heavy and unnecessary. Goodbye.

After my beef-pot-pie goodbye, Kody and I returned home to our La Quinta, (check out my post, That Time When I Met Harvey, if you wonder why I call the La Quinta home) and from the La Quinta we walked next door to Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant and Lounge, where we met our friend Erica, Queen Vic bartender/soon-to-be-full-time student. The Ethiopians welcomed us like family. We danced, we drank coffee, we smoked the watermelon hookah, and we looked to the future with an open mind.

This year I can’t say that I’ve made any resolutions, or maybe I should say nothing new. I find myself reflecting upon the past year as the best of times and the worst of times, while looking forward with hope and excitement. In the next couple of months, we will finally move back home, brand new from top to bottom, with my stamp on all of it. This past week, and for a while now, I find myself looking in the mirror each morning, pointing at myself, and saying, “The only person you have to be better than today is the person you were yesterday.” I find myself thinking about doing more of what works in my life and less of what doesn’t. Is that a resolution?

Yesterday I saw this movie, The Light Between Oceans. A lighthouse keeper named Tom (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander) live on the island of Janus off the coast of Australia. They recue a baby girl drifting at sea with her dead father and keep her as their own, later to face the consequences of their actions.1

The_Light_Between_Oceans_poster
Grab a box of tissues.

Tom tells Isabel that the island and the month of January are named after Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. 

JanusJanus depicted with two faces, looking to the future and the past.

There seems no better time for renewal than the beginning of a year—except maybe for the beginning of each new day. So what if you set a goal for yourself and screwed up before the end of the first week of January? So what? Each day is a new day. I’ve always loved that saying: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Because none of us are perfect, and every day is another opportunity for a do-over.  2017 met me with significant challenges, but I’ve always believed everything happens for a reason. My mom used to say that, and at the beginning of 2018, I’m finally starting to understand the reason. The passage of time meets us all with challenges, and through each challenge we learn and grow in strength and wisdom.

Maybe I do have a resolution after all:

Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Light_Between_Oceans_(film)

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus