A Child-Free Life: Selfish or Self-Aware?

“Those of use who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths” –Meghan Daum

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids offers multiple perspectives and journeys to childlessness. Some of the writers were firmly entrenched in their decision not to have kids from a very early age. Others were not so definitively tied to their eventual childlessness. Circumstances always complicate life. Life happens and often not how you imagined it.

The carefully crafted introduction illuminates a question of which there are numerous opinions: are the childless selfish or merely self-aware?

My own journey to childlessness has been partially chosen for me. Having never found a worthy partner—and yes, I know, for many women, the option of single motherhood is a viable choice—it has almost felt like my decision was made for me. I admire single mothers but my ideal image of parenthood always involved two parents (at least in the beginning).

Coming from a big family, I always imagined that if I did have a family it would be big. I imagined at least three children. Maybe four. I am so close with my siblings and always thought it was good for socialization and healthy development. These days, however, there are enough activities to enroll your child in (many of them free) that the need for siblings has perhaps declined.

After 30, in the back of mind, I thought I still had time if it felt right. The whole birthing process terrified me—as almost any honest woman, parent or nonparent—would probably agree. One of the authors refers to a feminist, Shulamith Firestone, who compared childbirth to “shitting a pumpkin.” Then there was the simple act of holding a living, breathing child—freshly wrapped in a soft, white blanket covered in little monkeys. Supporting their neck for the first few months. Do you know how terrified I am to hold an infant? And as Courtney Hodell speaks to in her essay, the foreverness of a child is also another thing that terrifies me—and I think if you asked many individuals—I am not sure they fully considered this reality when they slipped off the condom and took a roll of the dice.

Despite all of these fears, intellectually and emotionally, I know I have the capacity to be an excellent mother. I got all of the tools from my own home growing up. It was not without dysfunction but there was no question my parents loved me. I wonder if in another life I would have been one of those Pinterest moms who—perhaps subliminally—engaged in “motherhood as a competitive sport.” Probably not.

Without many successful relationships, I have come to enjoy my solitude, continuing to hope one day to find a suitable companion. And somehow, coming from a big family—all of whom have children but me—I have never been questioned at length about my lack children. However, like some of the authors, I can’t help wonder if am being judged. Why aren’t you married? Why aren’t you having children? What’s wrong with you? And then there is another question that I may on occasion dare ask myself—would my trajectory be different if I didn’t have my illness?

My morning reminder of my own self-absorption: the multiple snoozes that follow the incessant buzzing of an alarm in the morning. I don’t really have to get up. I could call in sick or take a personal day. I don’t have little eyes peering over the bed telling me they are hungry or they want to watch Paw Patrol. Thoughts of dragging myself out of the bed the upcoming week envelop me with an impending sense of doom every Sunday evening. Weekend mornings are reserved for waking up naturally. Sometimes I wake up at 9:30 if I went to bed early enough the night before. Other days, the sun wakes me up and I promptly turn over (often not even needing a pillow to cover my head to block the light) and sleep until 11.

My friends and siblings who have kids aren’t so lucky—a natural alarm clock—their kids wake them up. Sometimes before the sun. The only time I have ever gotten up that early is when my mom informed me that the school bus was picking us up in 15 minutes and she wasn’t driving me to school again. Or maybe a special occasion. A flight to Hawaii…For some reason, I can always get to the airport early—no matter what time of day. However, there better be a huge payout awaiting me after the sun rises.

Don’t get me wrong, I love kids. So much. My nephews are my world. I like to consider myself a cool aunt. My one nephew still talks about the time I taped and covered his Christmas presents with Hershey kisses. A little chocolate never hurt anyone, right? I did say, however, they could just have one piece at a time as my sister-in-law laughed and concurred.

Several authors in the book talk about having no regrets and truly believe they aren’t missing out on one of the joys of so many newly minted parents. I can’t say that I am not filled with some sense of loss in not getting to partake in parenthood. The daily things that come out of children’s mouths…Waking up to those smiles. A hug after a long day…Yes, they grow out of some of the childish cuteness. But the parents in my life are watching a human being grow up. I chase their children around while their parents take a break. Yes, I get to return their kids at the end of the day but I also miss out on all the ordinary experiences and memory making.

Many may consider me irresponsible or an adult child, saying I don’t consider the future enough. I live in the moment—a characteristic I share with many of the book’s authors. I just got back from a month in Mexico—a trip that occurred kind of on a whim. I spend money without consideration of the consequences (i.e. how will I pay for my retirement? Will I ever own a home?). I’m going back to graduate school for a second time. I can take this time to write. I get moments of solitude whenever I want. For many parents, a trip to the bathroom doesn’t even bring respite. The truth is in the end I am not sure I want to give up my freedom despite the hole in my life where children could have been. I call that self-awareness.

So in the end, I am filled with the mixed feelings of freedom and loss. When Duam talks of the “meandering, sometimes agonizing paths,” it captures some of what I feel. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had ever decided to go down the path of bringing life into this world.

My life now is dedicated to kids just in another way. Working on social issues with the end goal of every child growing up in a healthy, stable home with the same equality of opportunity as their peers. Laura Kipnis makes an interesting point when she writes of childlessness: “(It is) My little ‘fuck you’ to a society that sentimentalizes children except when it comes to allocating enough resources to raising them, and that would include elevating the 22 percent of children currently living in poverty to a decent standard of living.” That quote encapsulates, of course, the subject of another article or a dissertation or an entire organization’s vision—but think about it for a second.

Perhaps my role has always been destined to be that of a helper. Or also, that (sometimes) annoying aunt that instigates water fights in the backyard or feeds your kid candy before bedtime. If anything, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids is a conversation starter—a chance for parents and nonparents to better understand one another.

The Girl on the Train: A Must Read Summer Thriller…And a Sobering Commentary on Substance Abuse?

The Girl on the Train, written by Paula Hawkins, is a New York Times best seller, currently #1 on the list right now, which seemed like a great beach read. I settled into my beach chair under my favorite palm tree, shading me from the harshest of the sun’s rays. Looking out at the boats and the waves…perfect. I hadn’t finished a book in a while so I was looking forward to reading and being swept away.

What I found was as expected—a book told from multiple point of views that made for a tense “who-done-it?”. What I didn’t expect was the searing portrait of a woman suffering from alcohol addiction.

I have seen it all before. The blackouts. The tearful apologies the next day—apologizing for things you don’t even remember doing. The protagonist, Rachel, comes home from a typical night of drinking and is convinced something is not right. The next day—a woman is dead. What follows is her trying to reconstruct the evening.

Rachel is convinced that she may have done something wrong—maybe even something terribly wrong. “Something happened, I know it did. I can’t picture it, but I can feel it,” she says. Haunting.

It has happened to me so many times before. I couldn’t help flashing back to my own life. How many times did I get in the car and drive after drinking? It felt so innocent. I was okay, right? It had to be—otherwise the truth is shameful. Years later, every once in a while, in a pool of regret, I have actually wondered if I could have committed a hit and run. Had I ever driven blackout drunk? I am not 100% sure. I couldn’t have. I didn’t have a dent in my car. I hadn’t heard any stories—and it sure would have been a story in such a small town. And, yet I couldn’t escape the feelings of doom. I still can’t.

The book is peppered with statements like “I never learn…” and “How did I find myself here?” I found myself more engrossed by the portrait of Rachel than trying to figure out the elusive killer.

Alcohol addiction affects millions of people and it is sometimes a hard illness to ascertain. Because alcohol is legal, it is easy to dismiss my previous (or someone else’s) drunk behavior as funny or just Kate being stupid or simply having a bad night. How do we determine whether it is someone just enjoying alcohol in a social setting or abusing it (even in a social setting)? There is no denying that when you hide bottles in your home, as Rachel did, that you are probably an alcoholic. But how about all those individuals who party to excess on a regular basis?

This book gave me a lot to consider—yes, the thriller aspect was fun. But, what really sticks with me isn’t the game of “who-done-it?” but the fact that the book will be remembered as a thriller—carefully crafted with the literary device of substance abuse as one of the main driving forces for creating the mystery. Part of what it should be remembered for though—is a portrait of a societal problem—alcohol.

A Thought Piece: Disentangling the Web of Race and Mental Health

We spent a week leading up to Charleston shooting weighing in on Rachel Dolezal. She had been passing as black woman for many years. She said on the Today Show that she identified as black. What does race mean? Many asked and answers varied. Yes, race is a social construct. Some likened her comments to what individuals in the transgender community experience.

I struggled with making sense of it all myself. The thing about race is that it is visible and cannot be changed (when we speak of those who are born black). It becomes more difficult with many light skinned black individuals. Years ago, there used to be the one-drop rule when determining if a person was black. Some blacks at the time could pass as white. It becomes a bit complex when biracial individuals grapple with their identity.

Now, back to Rachel Dolezal. There is no way she can identify as black. She has not lived the black experience. Obviously, every black person does not experience their “blackness” in the same way but the one thing they have in common is a shared history of oppression. The transgender community also has a shared experience of oppression. The disabled. Women. All oppression is nuanced but can be loosely associated to a particular group who has felt it in some way or another. Collectively, the oppressed group feels it when it happens to one of their brothers, sisters, friends, acquaintances or…even a stranger.

Rachel Dolezal was white pretending to be black. A manifestation of white privilege at the most extreme level. You don’t get to choose Rachel. You just don’t. Yes, you were trying to help give the black community a voice but this was a step back not a step forward.

Then, Charleston happened. Days later and yet again, race relations were brought to the nation’s doorstep. Dylann Roof killed nine African Americans engaged in worship at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He sat there for an hour. According to recent reports, he said he almost didn’t do it because the worshipers “were so nice.”

Many point to mental illness as the most obvious underlying cause for Dylann’s shooting spree. Obviously, no one in his or/her right mind would commit this awful act of violence. Yet, my mind can’t get wrapped around the fact that the distorted thoughts of HATE were deeply rooted and (that) coupled with fragile mental health caused this horrific event. Fragile mental health is not the ONLY cause. There was a history of racist thoughts and behavior. As a quick exercise, following that premise, is every racist mentally ill? Even if they don’t shoot up a church?

Because the majority of the mentally ill are not violent. They are more likely to be the victims of violence.

What is the source of the hate? We are taught it directly or indirectly through systemic institutional racism. A quote I saw on Facebook of all places from Denis Leary (I know…a comedian) seems to sum up the source of hate. It goes something like this…”my kid doesn’t hate anyone…you know what he hates…naps.” Yes, racism is taught in one way or another and often, from a young age.

Racism is entrenched in every area of life. Structurally, on a systemic level, I argue (and people smarter than me have proven it) that it starts with housing that immediately segregates (and has for generations…remember Jim Crowe?). That conveniently flows into education. Poor neighborhoods (disproportionately inhabited by persons of color) don’t have access to the funding that their rich (largely white) counterparts have. Why do you think all my friends are living in the neighborhoods with the good schools? (And no, they aren’t all white.) Because once anyone begins to earn a modest income and have enough to leave to a better school district (paid for by a nice hefty property tax), they move to a nice home and search out a preschool (for their unborn child).

And conveniently (almost innocently), preschool is where it starts. The achievement gap between rich and poor slowly starts to form. The poor (often those of color) sometimes can’t afford preschool or next, a well funded elementary school, unless they literally win the lottery (aka a charter school). The public schools in many districts are so poor that they are breeding grounds. School to prison pipeline anyone?

So back to hate. Why did Roof do this? I have some theories. First, he grew up in the South where tensions and attitudes about race are often skewed towards ignorance. I wonder…did he grow up in a lower class household? Because when you are poor, you often become disillusioned and angry about your situation. Anger often becomes displaced. Finally, maybe his family, friends and dare I even say, teachers, were racist because unfortunately, it gets conveyed and learned either explicitly and/or often, implicitly.

And let’s consider the class issue in race relations. You must really be wondering now. Is this article getting convoluted yet? Class plays a huge role when we are talking about race relations. For all races. When you are hopeless, you do things you might not otherwise do. Gangs form out of a misplaced hopelessness that can gradually grow into hate. I assert that most terrorists are susceptible initially to joining jihad movements out of hopeless due to poverty, lack of education among other “non-radical” reasons.

What is the definition of terrorism? That is what many are advocating to label this incident. I was curious to see a few definitions. Here are two simple definitions from Dictionary.com: “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes” and “systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal” The cultural definition suggests terrorism committed by groups.

The FBI definition on it’s website is pretty clear: “Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

What is the definition of a hate crime? I looked it up. One of the definitions on Dictionary.com is “a crime, usually violent, motivated by prejudice or intolerance toward an individual’s national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.”

The FBI defines it as such: “A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”

From, the definitions above, this looks like a clear case of terrorism. And I can’t get into right now (in this article) but why we seem to label some people as terrorists and some not…Simple answer: more racism.

What distinguishes this particular act and makes it more than just violence and a direct display of hate: the manifesto. I read the manifesto. It is filled with hate but surprisingly coherent—not without spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, of course—but fairly coherent. I’m not sure I would characterize (in my layman opinion) as psychotic. It made sense. Terrifying but it made sense. He was mentally unstable but I’m not sure he was psychotic.

Back to the mentally illness argument for a second. The mentally ill do often engage in grandiose thoughts and writings. The onset of psychosis is usually acute. He was on suboxone and it can have dangerous side effects.

But despite the madness, often, we usually see distinct aspects of a person’s personality and beliefs in a psychotic state. When I think back to my own experience with psychosis…what was I obsessed with each time? Education. I was grandiose with my plans. I had somewhat of a manifesto/plan. It was somewhat fragmented and disjointed but actually was pretty coherent at many points. It was all about reforming the education system. There were real glimpses into my actual “non-psychotic” personality: that of one with a passion for education. So when we think of psychosis, there are usually some real parts of our personality that seep through the psychosis.

Now it is up to the experts. It is clear he was racist. Was he mentally ill? Did the drugs he had been caught with at one point have a role? Mentally unstable yes. How do you define hate crimes? Terrorism? Can there ever be non-subjective definitions of these horrific acts of violence? What about the never ending gun debates?

I end this article with more questions than answers. The issues, when you dig deep, are very intertwined and really hard to entangle. But, I do know one thing, no matter what motivated Roof, (and even Dolezal) we need to talk about two things: systemic racism and mental health and above all…hate.

A night with Paris Hilton

Why I am I still in my clothes? Why is there vomit on my shirt? I get out of bed and go to the kitchen to get some water. My head hurts. I walk into my living room and notice the front door is wide open. What the hell happened last night?

I remember being with my friends. I think the guys and I may have had car bombs. Shit. Every time this happens I wonder why I try to keep up with them when we drink.

I remember them leaving me at that bar talking to friends and the bartender who I have a crush on. I insisted he put on this song I like by 50 Cent. He says no and I get pissed. I don’t remember anything after that.

The next day I find out I am banned for life from the bar. But, that’s really the only bar in town. What the hell did I do?

I don’t go there for awhile.

My friends convince me to call and apologize. I call him. I tell him that I know it doesn’t mean much but I am sorry.

I ask him what happened. His only response…you were acting like a child.

~

When I think of self harm, I think of cutting. The blade slowing slicing your skin as you try to feel in control of something… Maybe your pain…your depression.

My self harm was more subtle. Binge drinking. Wearing the mask of a party girl. One of my girlfriends called me Paris Hilton. Maybe because I literally went out every night. And drank.

But I was neglecting my responsibilities as a student and after I graduated, as a teacher. I barely opened a book the whole time I was in grad school. I remember blowing off a big project to pick up a bar shift. Funny enough…so another girl could study.

I think the worst thing I ever did was to get behind the wheel of a car. My younger self was horrified. But that girl didn’t exist anymore. Rationalization was my new way of living. I was in control. I was only driving a mile. Maybe three. I didn’t FEEL drunk.

I was so unaware of my irrational thinking. And the slow hints of manic behavior creeping into my life. Alcohol masks things. It masks hypomanic behavior.

The saddest part of all was the conversation I had maybe a week before I left town with my sister who had come to pick me up to take me home to my parents’ house.

I told my friend Jan that I was working on being “a better person.” He said “Kate, you are a good person. You just need to drink less.”

But it was too late the alcohol and the lack of a real support system hadn’t allowed me to catch it in time. I didn’t descend into full mania but I was making grand plans. I had made a plan – a vision – that was going to change education. Everyone would be a success story. Grounded in the idealism that had brought me into education…but not something I should be showing the principal. Luckily my best friend advised me against that.

I had to quit my job. Looking back I have regrets about leaving. But you can’t change the past. As much as you want a redo…you have to move forward. Unfortunately it took me a long time to do so.

The day I left Williamsburg I went to my friend Pete’s house to say goodbye. I brought a six pack as a gift. How ironic that I was giving them the thing that nearly destroyed me.

How are you? I’m fine.

How are you? I am fine. How often do you have this exchange everyday? With your coworkers. Your friends. The store cashier.

Sure there are many times you expand and share your fabulous weekend or that story about the horrible traffic you were just in….

Half the time though it is just a formality.

For some, this formality is a daily…or hourly reminder that they are not fine. Because no one wants to hear about depression.

When I look back, my battle with depression began in college. This is when symptoms usually first express themselves.

I was functional. I had some friends. I got Bs. But there many days I skipped class. And just as many days where I would eat in the dining hall alone…I was careful to choose the times when no one went when I knew I would be eating alone. Subconsciously I knew I had a problem.

College was good in many ways. It presented new experiences but it was also a time of lost potential. I was lost. And my relationships and academics suffered.

After college, I had my first manic episode and had my first experience with medication. I was now aware of my illness.

I went through ups and downs but after the second episode five years later, the depression reared its ugly head and this time, masking it became a lot harder.

I was functioning. I had a job and was able to perform well. Maybe because it was something I could focus on and control.

My social life was nonexistent. I lived at home for two years. I never went out. My only friend was my mom. Then, one of my college friends needed a roommate. This should have been a great opportunity for change.  My social life didn’t improve much. I just didn’t have the energy to be fun. I was a flat version of myself.

Two years later, I moved out and got a fabulous apartment. Great price. Great location. Walk-in closet. Balcony. A fabulous apartment that no one visited because I never went out.

My isolation grew worse.

I would lay on the couch all day on the weekends. Staring at the TV. Sometimes staring at the wall. Sleeping on the couch during the day. Ordering take out. I think for many people functioning with depression they use all of their energy during the week trying to put on the face of normalcy. They try to fool people into thinking that they are ok.

I managed to fool people at work. I would actually prepare an answer for when people asked the infamous “How was your weekend” question. An answer that differed from the real normal: nothing. I went to a barbecue. I went to a friend’s house. It was always vague because how could I say I went out for drinks to a place I had never been?!

Except my friend Ryan. One day he asked me if I had many friends. Yes, I had some friends in the area. (Did I ever see them? No.) This was a wake up call.

I decided to get a therapist. I picked her out of a book of providers. She was nice. But she wasn’t helping me. It felt like a chore to see her. But, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by stopping. She WAS trying, right? So, I went for a while and told her what she wanted to hear.

The depression continued until my psychiatrist suggested a therapist in his practice. She was nice and yes, there were things that she said that I could predict. But, she listened-really listened-and she was able to provide concrete suggestions on how to move forward. She was the one that helped me get out of a horrible data entry job and into AmeriCorps. I moved from Virginia to New Jersey and I left the place that reminded me of my depression (except for my mom…she was the only part of Virginia I wanted to take with me).

As Dr. Patel says in Silver Linings Playbook (amazing movie that explores mental illness if you haven’t seen it), “you’ve gotta have a strategy.” A strategy that is constantly evolving as life circumstances shape your current reality.

It has taken me a long time but I am in a much better place.  It easier to face the day (most days and even weekends).

I can thank Ryan. Because you can’t survive alone. You have to have a strategy.  And someone to hold you accountable.

Looking for Answers: Navigating Grief

I did it again. I was thinking about something and reached toward my phone to call her. She was always there for me.

During our phone conversations, I don’t think I ever cried. She listened and we laughed. She heard me bitch about my day. She talked to me when I was in a bad mood. But, now… Sometimes I look at the phone and tears well up in my eyes.

How does one deal with the pain of death? The simplest solution is to cry. Tears are good. Releasing them allows us to grieve. Others deal with grief in other ways. I don’t know if my brothers have cried yet. But, they talk about her. You can’t sweep it under the rug. Talk about it. Without any books that’s my novice conclusion.

Keeping her memory alive by telling her story allows us to remember the loving, selfless person she was. Writing the eulogy, looking through her stuff and making collages of pictures was painful. But at the same time it was joyous as we looked at how full of life she was. We had a full house filled with memories.

Happiness. Being happy where you are at in life…that was the way she lived her life.

Her house was filled with framed pictures of her friends and family. So many friends from different parts and different stages of her life showed up at the wake, funeral and reception. That’s a lot of lives she touched. There are countless more. All the students she taught throughout the years. Friends of friends. Neighbors. Childhood friends.

There are several memories I have from the journey from the hospital to rehab center to eventual death that still haunt me. Finding out that she four to six weeks to live without radiation. But then there was four to six months if she did radiation. Okay, that was better. She tried but I guess her body couldn’t handle it.

Losing the ability to communicate. The thoughts in her head that just wouldn’t translate into words. Losing the ability to walk. The worsening tremors. This wasn’t my mom.

The pain in her eyes when she saw our sadness. That was the hardest part of all.

I have a read a few articles about grief looking for answers. There really isn’t a clear answer. Some books might say there are five steps. Yes, I have experienced denial. It still doesn’t seem like it has really happened. But then the heavy feeling of emptiness creeps up at the most unexpected times. I have, however, gone through the anger stage. Why was such a wonderful person taken away from us at age 65? She deserved to see her grandchildren grow up. To see me get married some day.

The only real answer (in my opinion), other than talking about it, I have read in my quick “Google search” of grief is to live intentionally. This is how we navigate this new normal.

The answer for me so far in defining this new normal is to find a sense of purpose in life and go after it. For me, I think this might mean changing the conversation on mental illness and maybe pursuing social work.

My mom would have wanted me to be the best person I can be. This might mean making difficult choices in order to change myself for the better. But I can do it.

Stand on the escalator

Today I woke up and didn’t want to go work. This happens a lot. I stayed in bed until the last-minute and that turned into another five and another five. Suddenly, it was 8:35 and I was supposed to be at work in ten minutes. I wrote my HR person that I had accidentally turned off my alarm. That was sorta true. I had just kept resetting my alarm.

Sometimes I wonder what it would take to draw disability benefits.  Would it matter that I have been able to work almost continuously since college (i.e. over 13 years)? One of the main criteria for obtaining social security benefits is decompensation.  Basically, it consists of a decline in overall mental health in a person who was managing their mental illness until that point.  One important factor in getting benefits, however, is documenting this decline. To qualify for benefits, you have to meet a bunch of criteria.  They will check your medical records and verify.

I do have a perfect stressor, my mom’s recent passing, but I am well enough to write this article and can do a pretty good job of convincing people I am stable.  (Although, I think I could also do a pretty good job of convincing people I am not. I have fooled psychiatrists about the level of my depression before.)

When I finally got off the bus this morning (It was nearly 10 a.m.), I didn’t have the energy to power walk up the side of the escalator. You know those people. The ones that get pissed if you are standing on the left side of the escalator blocking their frenzied ascent to their destination. Usually I am one of them. I am always running late or barely going to make it on time. Today, I just stood on the right side. I didn’t have the energy.

But, then I got to work and although I was exhausted, I made it through the day. Taking it hour by hour. Putting even small things on my to-do-list so I could have the satisfaction of looking at the list and seeing items crossed off.

I have to remember these symptoms of apathy or depression happen to everyone, not just those diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s normal. Grief causes it. Job dissatisfaction. A night that kept you out too late. The important thing to remember is to allow yourself to have these days.

My mom passed away two weeks ago and it has rapidly accelerated my desire to make some changes in my life. The important thing though is you can’t rush the process. Don’t run to work. Don’t lose your temper. Don’t rush through your life. Allow yourself time to relax. To process.

Stand on the escalator.

There are many cases of individuals who are experiencing heavy decompensation due to a sudden stressor or an unsuccessful treatment plan.  My case is not clinical depression but I have at one time or another experienced many of the classic symptoms: social anxiety, chronic pain, loss of sex drive, lack of motivation, fatigue etc. I am determined to not make these symptoms dehabilitating. They have been in the past. I am planning to get a therapist to make me accountable for the goals I am setting for myself. 

Cracks in the System Resurface…But it’s not so simple.

When I saw the news of the Creigh Deeds shooting, I had to tune in.  This incident was different than the usual nightly montage of shootings and killings and robberies and general malaise. The spotlight has once again turned on the mental health system.  Where did it go wrong?

I was flabbergasted when I read the following on CNN: Virginia law requires doctors to find a bed for a patient under an emergency custody order within four hours or release them.

Seriously?! I looked up VA law for what emergency custody means just to be sure I understood.  It states:

“Based upon the opinion of a licensed physician that an adult person is incapable of making an informed decision as a result of a physical injury or illness and that the medical standard of care indicates that testing, observation, and treatment are necessary to prevent imminent and irreversible harm…”

I only included an excerpt but I highlighted two sections that I thought relevant.  The part about preventing imminent harm struck me. This notion of preventing harm seems just a little, maybe a little…important.

The question is how do we determine when imminent harm exists and what systems are in place to protect the rights of the individual involved while also diffusing what could be a potentially dangerous problem should precautions not be put in place. (wow, that was a mouthful…because as mental health consumer myself, I know we have rights too and we need to remember that)

What baffled me at first was…how is it that the hospital had four hours and they weren’t able to contact one of the area hospitals that apparently had available beds? I thought that seemed like it was a time crunch BUT could be done if you had a central database where you could look up what hospitals had available psychiatric beds. I also thought the process was a whole lot simpler.  I didn’t account for the fact that you don’t just wait for the doctor, see the doctor, get a diagnosis and then have your decision.

I did a few minutes of eye opening  research and you can extend the time limit to six…but I also read all of the things that are involved in the process.  Whoa.

First off, four hours is NOT enough time. Have lawmakers ever considered how long this whole process takes? The clock starts ticking when you enter police custody.  Then you have to drive to get assessed by the community service board. Then, you have to go through various tests like drug testing.  You also have to be sober to be admitted. Other health problems are considered as well.  Then, there is the determination if you are violent. Some hospitals don’t have the nursing staff to handle violent individuals that need one-on-one care. Your gender is also a factor when determining bed space. As I mentioned in a previous article, a male patient exposed himself to me while I was briefly in inpatient treatment many years ago. This absolutely can’t happen.

And when I started writing this article, I so ignorantly thought: how hard would it be to look up number of psychiatric beds available in each hospital? Whoa, was I wrong. And I am a mental health consumer. I know more than the average person but as I am learning, know very little about the complicated mental health system. My experiences have been very minimal due to the fact that I never had shown any threat of imminent harm to others or myself.

A source from the National Alliance of Mental Illness was quoted as saying, “After the VA Tech incident, the legislature funded 42 million for mental health services but by 2010 it was gone due to the recession.”

How many incidents have to occur? We keep going over and over this again and again. Each time the mental health system keeps coming up. However, upon closer and closer examination of the mental health system, it gets trickier and trickier.  There are so many variables to consider. You can’t just check off a few boxes and have your answer in a minute. (And you can’t keep an individual in custody indefinitely.)

One problem. Most people don’t care enough like me to try to understand the mental health system.  They look at the TV and think either the dudes crazy and we can’t help him… Or they think a bed was available…what inept person screwed that up? Unfortunately, you also need an attention span of more than 30 seconds when trying to understand the complexity of the system.

The brain is our body’s most powerful organ. It is both brilliant and dangerous. We have got to consider how important it is to put funding into understanding mental health and fixing a broken system. We also have to educate the public about how important this issue is. How are we going to fix something we don’t understand?

Chasing Wellness

I was reading an article recently about taking responsibility for your treatment compliance.  It is a very hard road and it takes determination to achieve stability.  And then there is the even harder goal: being truly happy. Happiness seems so elusive.   There is always a temptation to find an excuse, blaming your illness for your inability to move forward.

Finding a sense of control over your life can be overwhelming at times.   Sometimes you are blind to your symptoms and think you are flying high.  Ten years ago, I thought I was fine.  I was juggling grad school and a vibrant social life.  Except weekend binge drinking was getting in the way of my wellness.  My life started spirally out of control and I was unraveling.  My mood swings became more evident to others.  Except they didn’t ever confront me.

I was taking my medication but I wasn’t seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis.  I didn’t meet with a psychiatrist for almost 2 years.  I was literally phoning in my treatment compliance.  Getting prescription refills with no accountability (let’s not even get into the fact that my psychiatrist was truly negligent).  I thought taking my medicine was enough.  Until, I wasn’t okay.

You need to develop a regimen.  Medication is just one piece.  You need sleep.  You need exercise.  You need to eat right.  You shouldn’t be drinking or abusing other substances (which is really hard when all of your friends seem to be having so much fun…sobriety is a hard pill to swallow).  Most importantly, you need a doctor at a minimum.  Add a therapist…even better.

Even if you feel like what your health care provider (doctor, therapist, etc.) is saying things you already know.  Understanding what you have to do to be well is a lot easier than actually executing their recommendations.

There have been so many times where I have thought I could do my therapist’s job.  Then, I find myself not getting out of bed until 2 p.m. because I don’t want to face the day.  I don’t want to face my life.  Because finding happiness and wellness is difficult.  Especially when the obvious excuse is there: I have a mental illness.

Life is a marathon.  You need to train every day.  When you skip a day, don’t let that be a reason to abandon your goals.  Get back on track the next day.

The Price of Silence

One in four adults—approximately 57.7 million Americans— experience a mental health disorder in a given year.  –NAMI

How many times have I heard someone call a person with bipolar disorder (or any mental illness) a slur and not said anything?  I just didn’t have the energy for the conversation.

A friend and I were watching Homeland recently and he heard Claire Danes’ character was taking an antipsychotic.  The word nutjob immediately came out of his mouth when he heard about the drug.

That was my opportunity to say it.  I am on an antipsychotic.  But no, I kept quiet because I was tired.  We were in the middle of watching a TV show.  Would I bring it up later? No.

The price I pay: resentment of that person for making an ignorant comment.  The sad thing about off-hand comments is that they are systemic.  Misunderstanding of mental illness is so ingrained in society that otherwise kind people you respect make comments like that.

I have begun to speak up.  A conversation I had a little over a week ago changed that.  After my last episode several years ago, I had vowed to become a voice.  It hasn’t happened.  Yes, some people know.  But, our conversation really changed my resolve.

She mentioned mental illness in her family.  The conversation progressed.  She mentioned that 1 in 4 people have experienced mental illness.  I was shocked that I didn’t already know that.  But, I shouldn’t be surprised.  We don’t talk about it.  Except when something bad happens.

My goal for 2013 is to participate in the conversation and hopefully begin to change perceptions.

(Sadly, I am keeping myself anonymous on this website for fear of a prospective employer finding out about my illness.  I don’t trust the Equal Employment Opportunity claim in the hiring process.)