Ode to the La Quinta

Ten months ago on the 27th,  I felt as if the sky was torn off my life. In short, Hurricane Harvey had flooded my home. My family and our dog Rain evacuated along with our neighbors and their dogs in the rain. Houston fire fighters rescued us in a flat-bed city dump-truck and then dumped us in a dry parking garage. From there we sloshed on foot a little over a mile to a pet-friendly La Quinta, a safe haven in the face of crisis, where we’ve lived ever since. (More details @ That Time When I Met Harvey)

The Flood

The people here have been so kind. My La Quinta family—Raven and Shanta and Amber and Chad—all from the front desk. They’ve been there on good days and bad days. They’ve witnessed us at our best and worst. Raven was here on day one. She had answered the phone when Kody called from the parking garage to make our reservation and allowed us an early 9 AM check-in. That same day she loaned us her personal umbrella to run across the street in more rain to the Hilton for lunch. And whenever Raven works, she recognizes the click of Rain’s nails on the tile, and she always says, “Hello, Rain, I heard you coming!” A friend of Rain’s is a friend of mine. Shanta, the general manager, was the first to welcome me into the hotel laundry room for our personal needs. She was there for the excitement of an upcoming interview, she was there for the disappointment of a terrible previously mentioned interview, and she offered me a job at the La Quinta as a consolation. I just might take her up on that, and if not, I can totally see myself dropping by just to visit these people whom I will miss. Then there’s Amber, who works the night shift and goes from here to her other job at a memory care facility or vice versa. We had some good heart-to-hearts…about my mom…about Drew. Throughout this past school year, I left the hotel each morning between 6:15 and 6:30. Amber was always there to tell me to “Have a good one!” And Chad, well, he’s most often here in the evening, and Kody and I tend to have adult beverages in the evening, and sometimes Kody raps in the evening, and Chad, well, he gets it. He’s entertained. He’s a nice audience. I have another friend named Joanna, also displaced from the storm that displaced so many, living here since November with her kids Bella (11) and Bun (9, given name Toby) and their dog Storm. Bun loves Rain, too, and the irony of our dogs and their names does not escape me. Recently Joanna and I had a conversation about our time here winding down. “Everyone here has been sooo nice to us,” she said. “When we leave, it will be bittersweet.” Her words echo my thoughts.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, I’m excited to move back home, and it’s finally, ten months later, happening. As I recline on my last night here, propped up on pillows, in my bed with clean sheets, I feel there’s something to be said about good people who care. There’s a special place in heaven…

Good People

 

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Mental Health, Being Aware: An Update and a Prayer

hope

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

I wish I could say, “Phenomenal.” In reality, he’s okay.

In 2015, we faced Hospitalization #5, and I pulled the you-can-no-longer-live-at-home-unless-you-take-medicine card. Drew now accepts that he hears voices, and I accompany him to monthly appointments with his psychiatrist for an extended-release, anti-psychotic injection. It’s not perfect, but it helps. Like clockwork the auditory hallucinations become increasingly loud and mean about a week before his shot, and they stick around for about a week afterwards. The voices within taunt Drew. They yell at him. They cuss at him. Drew responds. He taunts, yells, and cusses right back. I’ve learned not to take the outbursts personally, but I can’t shake that sensation of pressure on my breastbone and the deep piercing of my heart, so I pray—for his peace and mine and Kody’s and our dog Rain, who hides under the bed. Two good weeks. Two restless weeks. At least I don’t have to oversee the daily swallowing of a pill or worry about him cheeking it and spitting it out.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Lee, invites me in to their monthly appointment, and after chatting about music for a while, he says things like this, “Are you having any anxiety?”

Drew responds, “No.”

“Any crying spells?”

“No.”

“Any paranoia?”

“No.”

“Do you hear any voices?

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“But, do you feel you can manage them?”

“Yes.”

“Good. That’s good,” Dr. Lee says before wrapping up the session. “You know, Andrew, I think you are doing really well, and ten years from now, I think you’ll be doing even better. Medicines are improving. They are always researching. Who knows? You go to sleep one night, and you wake up the next morning to a cure.”

I’m thankful for this doctor. I’m thankful for our current medication that has kept us from the inside of a hospital for the past three years. I’m thankful for resources at my fingertips at the click of a button. I’m thankful for a God who keeps my perspective in check and gives me hope.

This May (Mental Health Awareness Month), I found the prayer below on another mom/mental health advocate’s Facebook page. The original author is unknown, and I searched unsuccessfully to locate the source. However, I found it posted on schizophrenia.com as early as October 2004 again on Nouwen-network.com, an Australian site solely for resources on the theme of mental illness, ministry, prayer, and spirituality. I’ve been this mom, if not all at once, at least at times along the way, and so I pass her prayer to others needing the words—to others needing hope.

*****

A Mother’s Prayer for Mental Illness

As I stumble from my bed this morning, help me to remember to be gentle and kind.
My child’s mind is shredding into a million pieces. He lives in a constant state of atrocious fear. I can see it in his eyes. Give him peace.

Guide me as I hold him in my arms. Help me to know what to say. What to do. Fill my heart with healing love, understanding, and empathy.

Give me the strength of a thousand angels to hold back my tears. My heart is broken and a tidal wave of grief is overwhelming me with the need to cry. Give me the strength to bear it long enough to keep it from disturbing my child. Help me find someone I can safely bring it to.

Help me answer my family’s questions with the same amount of compassion I would want for myself. Help me remember they are hurting too. This is an unwelcomed assault on an entire family. My heart is not the only heart that is broken. We all need time and each other to heal.

As my journey becomes more and more isolative and lonely, remind me that the lack of involvement on the part of family and friends is not always because of the stigma and the ignorance. For many, it is because they are hurting too. They have the privilege of turning to their own lives. This is my family’s life now. I must deal with it whether I am hurting or not.

Send me your best physicians and healers. Give me presence of mind, as I walk through the exhaustion of my grief to not settle for just any one no matter how tiresome the journey becomes.

Help me adjust to the idea, that although it appears my son is gone, there will be no goodbye. And that he is still inside somewhere waiting for us to find him.

Infuse the creative part of my mind with solution oriented thinking. Give me hope. Even if it is just a glimmer of hope. A mother can go for miles on just one tiny glimmer. Let me see just a flicker of the sparkle of joy in his eyes.

Guide my hands, calm my mind, as I fill out the multitude of forms for services. Then help me do it again over and over.

Provide me with the knowledge. Lead me to the books I need to read, the organizations I need to connect with. As you work though the people in my life, help me to recognize those that are here to help. Help me trust the right ones. Shine a light upon the right path.

Give me the courage to speak my truth; to know my son’s truth. And to speak for him when he is unable to do it for himself. Show me when to do for him what he is not capable of doing for himself. Help me to recognize the difference.

Help me to stand tall in the face of the stigma; to battle the discrimination with the mighty sword of a spiritual warrior. And to deflect the sting of blame and faultfinding from the ignorant and the cruel.

Preserve my love for my family. Shield my marriage with the wisdom of the love that brought us together.

Protect him from homelessness, loneliness, victimization, poverty, hunger, hopelessness, relapse, drugs, alcohol, suicide, cruelty and obscurity.

Lead us to the miracles of better medications, better funding, better services, safe and plentiful housing, meaningful employment, communities who care, enlightenment. Help us to find some way to replace all the greed with humanitarian work and intrinsic reward again.

Most of all, give me the strength to deliver whatever I can to the work of unmasking the man made ugliness of this disease and revealing the human and all of it’s suffering beneath.

Finally, when it is my time to leave my son behind, send a thousand angels to take my place.

*****

Can I get an amen? Thank you for reading today and especially during the month of May. Thank you for taking time to try to understand the brain as a vital, potentially malfunctioning organ. And most of all thank you for your prayers and support for Drew and others with schizophrenia, 1.1% of the population, roughly 51 million worldwide.

Hope Jeremiah

How NAMI Saved My Marriage

nami-logo-blue

I admit without shame that I manipulated Kody into coming with me to a twelve-week, two-and-a-half hour Wednesday night Family-to-Family NAMI class, an education program for family members of adults living with mental illness. After four years of dysfunctional family interactions and an escalation of discordance at home, I started attending a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group, where people strongly encouraged me to attend what they called a “life-changing” class.  In my area, the class is only offered twice a year, and I needed immediate change, so I called to reserve my spot, explaining, “I’m hoping to bring my husband, but I’m not sure he will commit to twelve weeks.”

On the other end of the line, Mary, replied somewhat-conspiratorially, “Just bring him to the first class. You will share materials, and hopefully, he will keep coming.”

After registering, I text-messaged Kody’s cousin Misti, who lives in the metroplex. Recently, she had come to a jewelry party at my house that I co-hosted with Kody’s younger sister Gianna, the accessory queen and party planner, visiting us from Oklahoma. Drew stayed in his room throughout the event, and once everyone else had gone home, Misti asked, “How’s Drew?”

“Well, he’s in his room. About four years ago, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, so he avoids people. He doesn’t believe that he is sick, so he won’t take medicine, and we’re trying to figure out how to help him.”

“Really?” she said wide-eyed and shaking her head back and forth with an understood No. “I’ve never known anyone that’s happened to, but…” I censor this conversation because Kody’s cousin has an intimate relationship with someone hospitalized at that precise moment with a similar condition, and her story isn’t mine to tell. When I sent Misti information about the class, she texted back, “Thank you. Thank you. I’ll be there.”

I roped Kody into coming with me to the twelve-week NAMI Family-to Family class by saying, “Your cousin is coming. Just come to the first meeting, and if you decide not to come back after that, the registration lady told me it was okay.”  Meanwhile and in my defense, I forwarded Kody information via e-mail about the class, including location, times, and dates.  I guess he never read through that message because during the week-one class when he discovered the length of his captivity—from 6:30 until 9:00 that night, his blood seemed to boil beneath his skin. At any moment steam might’ve erupted from his ears and nostrils as Tom and Linda, our facilitators, began a hard-sell on the twelve-week commitment. By the way, Misti no-showed.

That first night included self-introductions, brief descriptions of our loved ones and identification of long-term goals. Tom created a T-chart on the dry erase board and said, “In the long term, is your goal for your loved one independence or functional dependence?”

When my turn came, I had two minutes to introduce myself and tell the story of Drew leaving for college on a full music scholarship and returning saying, “Something is wrong with my brain.” The story included a handful of hospitalizations and non-compliance with meds and not being able to keep a job and communication difficulties.  I concluded with, “I want Drew to be independent.”   Much of our recent household drama included heated words of Drew being twenty-four, needing to work, needing to contribute, needing to move out. Drew’s non-response was an issue. From the time my kids were young, I never considered any other option for them besides independence. I wanted nothing more than for Drew to have his own life and relationships and happiness beyond his bedroom walls, the walls that confined him most of the time.

Kody spoke next, exceeding his two minutes, explaining in more detail the difficulty and discomfort of living in his own home. His conclusion, however, shocked me: “Functional dependence.” During the previous year or so, Kody and I battled as foes concerning Drew and his illness and his capabilities. My Momma Bear instinct protected Drew and sided with him and made him sandwiches and did his laundry, to the detriment of my marriage. Together the three of us were the epitome of the dysfunctional family, and I had never considered the possibility of “functional dependence.” Already this class had changed my life.

The next week Kody met me once more at the church that held the class. An air of underlying hostility accompanied him. He skipped Week Three due to “work” but dragged himself back for the remainder of the twelve-week course. Together our perspectives shifted as we studied and discussed in a group setting the following topics:

Class 1: Emotional reactions to mental illness and goals

Class 2: Understanding schizophrenia and mood episodes, coping, and keeping files

Class 3: Types and sub-types of mood disorders

Class 4: About the brain

Class 5: Problem solving and setting limits

Class 6: Medication and treatment issues

Class 7: Understanding the patient

Class 8: Communication

Class 9: Self-Care

Class 10: Recovery

Class 11: Advocacy

Class 12: Certification Party

Before the NAMI class, I thought I knew practically everything I needed to know about mental illness. In four years, I had researched and read a handful of books and many-an-article. I watched Ted Talks and YouTube videos.  Not to mention, I lived with Drew.  However, the first six classes provided a plethora of new information, and the last six classes addressed the emotional side for patients and their families. In four years, I hadn’t considered how Drew might be feeling day in and day out, and this perspective changed my life.

Over the three-month period, I encountered complications as usual in speaking openly about Drew’s illness without my throat splotching red or my eyes swimming, Kody’s contributions became less angry, and together we learned more about Drew, biological brain disorders, and empathy. Each Wednesday night after class, we stopped for sushi and sake bombs and decompression, reflecting about the topics of the evening. Kody became my friend once more, and I cherish the memories of those Wednesday night dates.

Toward the end of the twelve-week program, another mom in the class approached me during a break and said, “It’s been really great to watch your husband’s transformation.” She leaned in and continued, “I know you had to trick him into coming.”  Almost four years after Drew’s schizophrenia diagnosis, a miraculous and radical change had occurred in our ability to cope with the illness and communicate with our son, and we owe that to NAMI.

General Mental Health Facts

Mental Health Awareness

We Are III Keys

Beyond our day jobs, Kody and I moonlight as managing partners and co-owners of Three Keys Properties, where we invest in and re-design residential fixer uppers, improving neighborhoods one house at a time. We’re not quite Chip and Jo. Less charming. No shiplap experimentation. No aspirations for our own show. However, Kody finds the deals, I have an eye for aesthetics, and together we grow in our experience.

Why Three Keys? One might ask. Bear with me.

Once upon a time, after nineteen years of marriage, I called movers, packed my bags, and left Kody behind. The details no longer matter. Neither one of us could afford to stay in our home without the other, so sadly we lost our most-favorite house…a spacious kitchen, ample storage, oversized master, en suite garden tub, best shower so far, his and her walk-in closets, a sparkling pool, a relaxing spa…so many things to love including my good friend, neighbor, and walking buddy Martha. 

Within a year of the divorce, I missed “the family,” Kody hung in there as my “friend,” and together we vacationed as “friends” with our kids in the Big Apple. I ❤️ NY, and I returned to my rented Plano townhome realizing that I ❤️ Kody, too. Sometimes time and space and amazing food and art museums and Broadway and romantic cities reveal the importance of people and things once taken for granted. Somewhere in that timeframe, Kody purchased a house in foreclosure, a dilapidated structure with beautiful bones and a sordid history. There may or may not have been a prostitution ring living and working in that house, abundantly wired, for surveillance purposes I presume. I swear. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Somehow we both related to taking on a neighborhood‘s dirty secret, giving it new life and a renewed sense of hope.

I remember sitting on the back patio of my townhome on a clear fall day, the sun shining, and Kody asking for my advice on his new renovation. I flipped through the Sherwin Williams paint color fan deck, searching for the perfect exterior trim color, matching the chip to the metal trim of MY patio furniture—Enduring Bronze. Eventually I assisted in decisions on flooring, granite, and interior paint as well. Somewhere along the way, Kody’s house felt like MY house, so I called movers, packed my bags once more, and moved back in with Kody. Together we lived in sin. (I joke—I’m  pretty sure that God approved of my decision to live with my former husband of nineteen years).

During our live-in-lover stage-of-life, my parents looked forward to their 50th wedding anniversary, and my dad planned a family celebration on a Mediterranean cruise for my mother. The family included my sister and brother, their spouses, and me and my boyfriend Kody. I cannot condense this story with justice, but all of my blabbity-blah leads up to the formation of Three Keys Properties. If an extended, kind-of-cute love story interests you, click the link of The Deep Sapphire Blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Anyway, while on that cruise, outside of Kuşadası, Turkey, near the ruins of Ephesus, Kody and I drank from three sacred water fountains, which, according to our tour guide, symbolized health, wealth, and love. (As an English teacher, I loves me some good symbolism). After quenching my thirst that day, I kissed Kody before writing a little prayer of gratitude to God for my family’s health, wealth, and love. I stuck the little piece of paper into a prayer wall with a million other prayers. And before the end of the day, June 23, 2011, Kody asked me to re-marry him on the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean, ring and all. Ironic, right? I say, “Name it and  claim it.” 

11.11

Side story: Kody had this thing (and still does) about spotting 11:11, mostly on digital clocks, but anywhere really…addresses…telephone numbers…consecutive 11s continued appearing. “It’s 11:11,” he would say, and with or without him, I began noticing the number coincidence, too. Apparently, many people see it, and theories abound on the 11:11 meaning. Google it. Angels are communicating…make a wish…oneness. Once engaged, we chose November 11, 2011, which seemed the obvious date for wedding #2.

11.11.11
11.11.11

A few years after incorporating as one in holy matrimony, we decided to incorporate for residential redevelopment purposes in an official limited liability company. While brainstorming business names, Kody came across the symbolic meaning of three keys. When worn together, they unlock the doors of health, wealth, and love, which we continue to name and claim, not only for us, but for anyone we work with along the way.

Hackamore The foreclosed home we purchased, remodeled head-to-toe, and sold when we relocated to Houston. For a tour, click https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/3600-Hackamore-Ct-Plano-TX-75023/26602059_zpid/

Searcy The 1940’s bungalow we purchased when the previous owner called our number off of our We Buy Houses sign. We added 1000 square feet, with a living room, three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a new laundry room. The new owners were thrilled to have a move-in ready home. For a tour, click https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2527-Searcy-Dr-Dallas-TX-75211/26735308_zpid/

Upon arriving in Houston, we moved into another fixer upper, a mid-century modern home, built in 1960. We consulted with interior designer Jessica Brown, who drew a new blueprint, and then started from scratch to build a network of home specialists–contractors and painters, flooring and brick and foundation guys, window installers and plumbers–in a new city. We stumbled through finding the right contractor to accomplish the goal, tearing down walls and redesigning an open-concept kitchen, living, and dining space while expanding the existing laundry room. After months of construction, two contractors, and phase one completion, we planned to update the bathrooms and create a new outdoor living space when Hurricane Harvey poured trillions of gallons of rain upon the city of Houston, flooding our investment and, just like the board game Trouble, sending us back to start. Slowly but surely, Three Keys Properties makes a comeback. 6″ x 36″ wood look porcelain tile installation close-to complete, an expanded master bath soon-to-be a reality. Photos and home again…in the not-so-distant future.

Automatic Weapons Suck*

Peace 2

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

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

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

mental health statistics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

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