The Things We Carry

My eyes are bleary, and my head is spinning. The feels of a teacher heading back to school—a new school with two new, advanced preps and new technology—a teacher hired late and cramming the summer reading, cramming the planning, doing the best she can without a user ID and password, hoping to give all of her students a fighting chance of passing advanced placement exams in the spring and earning college credit, hoping to have access to her grade book by day two.

I’m exhausted, I still have so much to learn, and students start today.Teacher PhotoMy future students were assigned Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to read over the summer. I hadn’t read this novel before, and honestly I hadn’t read anything about Vietnam or any other war, but now I categorize this book as a must-read. In 1968 O’Brien was drafted into the Army’s 46th Infantry and sent to Vietnam, and his seemingly autobiographical work of fiction sheds light on the war from a soldier’s perspective. O’Brien’s narration begins literally with the items that each soldier carried, introducing each character and setting up subsequent chapters, which read like short stories, all connected through mutual experience.

On day one after introductions and expectations, my new 11th graders will write about something they carry, an actual object or otherwise, now or in their past. I’ve reflected upon how I would respond if I were the student. While reading, I began to understand that Tim O’Brien has written over and over about Vietnam, book after book, because of the emotional baggage he carries. Each of his characters experiences compelling and transformative trauma, and theirs triggered mine.

It was a year ago today, August 27, 2017. I’ll never forget sloshing through the rising waters inside my house, opening my front door to a wave of more, wading through the flood over my knees to the evacuation truck, and trudging from the drop-off location another mile or so to a hotel where we would live for the next ten months. I would like to say that Hurricane Harvey is now behind me, I would like to say my ordeal in no way compares to those of a Vietnam veteran or any veteran’s trauma, but in the weeks preceding the one-year anniversary of Harvey, the memories continued to flood my thoughts—in the middle of my professional development sessions, in my car while driving around Houston, in the grocery store while sorting through the tomatoes. You would think my brain would be otherwise occupied, but no. The hurricane still spins with everything else I’m learning and thinking and adding to my To-Do list.

As I read through a veteran’s lens, I saw in those soldiers my friends, my classmates K-12 and co-workers and husbands and kids of friends and cousins of mine and my uncle, all who have served. I couldn’t stop thinking of so many good people I know, veterans, and their untold stories. I especially couldn’t stop thinking of Kenny Perrin, my classmate who always appeared to my left in our yearbooks, our names listed alphabetically—Kenny Perrin, Crystal Petty. He lost his life, just this summer, to illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the things he carried. Rest in peace, Kenny. I will never forget you as a friend, and I will never forget the sacrifices you made in the name of duty.

Brain Scans
Who are we to judge illness and injury and the things people carry? Images of a healthy brain vs. classic post-traumatic stress disorder vs. classic traumatic brain injury vs. both.         Source: PLOS One at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129659

As I carry my own past and the intimidation of an unknown future, I remember a beautiful, smart, athletic former student named Peyton. She messaged me via Twitter this summer in appreciation of giving her “extra confidence” in her writing abilities and coming to work with a “great attitude” and so many kind, kind words. And she remembered “like it was yesterday” walking into class in a cute outfit and me saying, “Peyton, I love your style.” I want to say that she wore white that day, maybe a jean jacket, maybe a blazer, looking super sophisticated as a sophomore. And in her message to me she said, “It’s the little things that give a girl confidence when she needs it most.” And that. That is what I choose to carry with me into this new year at a new school with new preps and new kids. Peyton, whether she knew it or not, gave me a little confidence when I needed it the most and reminded me to keep doing what I do. She reminded me that everything will be okay, and today I pay it forward to you and to my new students and right back to Peyton if she is reading up in NYC between her classes at Columbia. Everything will be okay.

We all carry things—literally, emotionally—some we wouldn’t choose and some we can’t necessarily drop, but we can choose some good to carry along. You know, to balance it all out.

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