16 December 2012

Tragedy and Hope - Becoming the Change we Wish to See in the World

Brother Bear shared this with me through his facebook account last night.I watched the video just moments after reading this post I am Adam Lanza's Mother by Liza Long.

The video is powerful and inspiring. The article gives a beautifully haunting account of our children within society's fear of and refusal to acknowledge, accept, or treat mental illness. I know the story, and Ms. Long captures the intensity of living with a loved one suffering from mental instability - instability that persists despite a heartfelt desire to change, and something medications fail to address.

Mental health does not, cannot, come from a pill. As a society we continue to ignore the increasing incidence of anxiety, depression, mood disorders, etc. Worse yet, we continue to ignore the stigma that mental illness carries. I know this stigma well. I've struggled with depression most of my life - not pick yourself up by the bootstraps, garden variety depression. Not a simple chemical imbalance, here this pill will fix that. No - debilitating, paralyzing, mind numbing and heart breaking depression that makes life feel... impossible. That makes fear feel insurmountable. Depression that invites soul crushing anxiety, and the illogical white hot anger flash that is both frightening and without logic. Who knows why - maybe I was born with it, maybe it's due in part to assaults I've endured, abusive relationships, or (and I know this to be true) the damage wrought by pills thought to cure this kind of depression. (Hint, they didn't, and instead made it worse.)

For a long time, it felt as though depression robbed me of my livelihood, of my future. And I'm lucky. I managed to meet a few amazing souls who helped me learn and develop tools to manage and maintain my mental health. Tools that help me step out from the paradigm of victim that it is so easy to settle into. It takes work, never ending work and effort to maintain - work that would likely be less burdensome were resources available. That, however, would require that we as a nation talk about Mental Health, acknowledge it as a priority, and begin the hard work of asking what about our lifestyle, health, culture influences that potential to develop or manifest mental dis - ease. My belief, or educated guess, is that there is much within our society, within the rapid paced, multitask oriented, stress filled daily routines - that fails to support mental health or fosters that dis-ease we are so afraid to acknowledge. Which brings us back to the video Brother Bear shared with me.

Our children, particularly our teens and preteens face so much pressure today. Most especially, they face mounting pressure to think about the money, about careers, schools, the increasing level of competition to attend college, rising costs of tuition, the demand that they choose to be something competitive with our world neighbors. Brother Bear entered high school this fall, and for months the conversation about grades, effort, gpa centered on the impact these have on his future. On his desire and ability to attend college, on his ability to enter certain professions, or worse, his ability to make a livable income. Like Brother Bear, most incoming freshman are 14, maybe newly turned 15. Rather than focus on building positive Habits of Mind, a sense of self, and life affirming attitudes / choices, we thrust upon our children the idea that success of failure now has the ability to determine their life's course. I remember facing the same mounting stress, and see it in the faces of the young becoming adults that I work with.

Our teens feel beyond overwhelmed. We've managed to create a sense of fearful anticipation in much of our youth, and it begins long before high school. Miss N can attest to that. What math course, how well you perform, and whether you remain in the advanced track in middle school determines where you land in high school, determines the post secondary school graduation options available to you. On and on it goes.

Yet we regard the increase incidence of Mental Dis- ease with surprise? This doesn't even acknowledge the emotional, mental toll of growing up in single parent households, or homes where parents are forced to work multiple jobs and still fail to cover the bills. It fails to address the influence of high stakes testing environments that serve to gauge our youths ability to withstand stressful situations far better than their academic mastery. We do that to them starting at 8, and as a nation of championed standardized testing as early as kindergarten.

The video Brother Bear shared asks possibly the most important question - What if? What if money didn't matter? What if our nation's youth focused on developing qualities and attributes that truly mattered? Check out the Habits of Mind program, think hard about the value of pursuing that which you are good at, verses the pursuit of a bank statement and assorted material objects. What if we promoted the ideals of balance, emotional, physical and spiritual health? What if we allowed our youth to forge a new path, one free from contrived stress and filled with innovative solutions and approaches to the future?

Yes, as a nation, we do need to hold a conversation about the state of our nation's mental health. Included in that, we need to openly and willingly consider how we foster health and dis-ease. Our children deserve better than we have to offer. In the words of Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

09 December 2012

Mommy, do you really believe in Santa Clause?

It's December, and Christmas is - hands down - my favorite holiday. Always has been, and always will be. If not for Christmas, I doubt I could have survived vast stretches of my childhood, or Hell Year for that matter. Hell year referring to the school year in which Brother Bear sustained his head injury, Miss N gave up her appendix (a worthy trade off considering the tumor that decided to claim it as residence), learning she had type one diabetes, and ultimately losing my teaching contract in the face of all that time off.

That Christmas our furrever friend Suki joined our family, now such a permanent and much loved fixture in our lives that none of us remember life without Suki. That Christmas also marked the year that the youngest of my children chose to stop believing in Jolly Ole Saint Nick. My heart broke at the declarative announcement. Religion aside, the greatest gift of the Christmas season is the larger than life sense of hope, of a belief in the miraculous, and the faith that miracles happen to everybody - even you and me.

When my son questioned the existence of the Jolly Old Elf, I shared an experience most adults choose to scoff at - not my Gramama. She was with me, and for years after confided her own adult belief in events that took place when I was only three. My parents moved to Denmark, and Gram had come for the wedding and extended visit. Walking through the shopping mall blossoming with winter decorations, I noticed a smallish man standing under a rather short Christmas tree. Funny looking little guy was dark, dressed in unusual clothing, and winked at me with a shush, then vanished. Call him a Brownie (that's what the Danes said) or an elf, but I saw him - the child still exuberantly alive in me jumps and nods emphatically as I type this. My mom, as all good mother's do, played along with my perceived flight of fancy, but not Gram - every Christmas from then to her 96th and last she quietly acknowledged that special moment we shared. And, it's colored every Christmas since - whether our family could afford gifts, the bare bones, or something in between. Christmas always carries a sense of magic.

Of course Brother Bear thought I was joking or pulling his leg. Our talk led to words and ideas that carry far more power and feeling than most. Words like love, hope, namaste. Sit quietly for a moment, breathe deeply, say a word like one of those and you'll likely sense something, an undercurrent of power. For me, both the words Christmas and Santa - the very ideas, hold the same promise of power, energy and magic. This time, more than any other, the quiet unconditional gifts of life, love, joy and light enter our lives and lift our spirits - so long as we let them. Seven years later that talk continues to hold an undying special place in both my heart and my son's.

Miss N and I had a similar conversation two years ago, though not with the same outcome. Perhaps it was the difficulty of the year we'd only just begun to endure, or her own unique outlook on life. Whatever the reason, her acceptance of my explanation fell flat.

Imagine my surprise the other day when she asked, once again, Mom - do you really believe in Santa? Yes, honey, I really, truly do. I believe in the active, living Spirit of Santa.

I've studied the myth behind the man; the story of the real Santa Clause, and the events that led to our modern day image of a man who delivers toys. Those children then had nothing, not even toys to play with, and the man on which we based the legend gave them everyday objects somehow made magical that created joy, laughter and a sense of hope in their possible futures. No matter what any adult tells me, the spirit of Santa Clause endures. Year after year, Christmas miracles - without any explanation - come to pass. Sometimes in our lives, often in others, but always with a sense of magic, mystery, love, and in a way that fosters a greater sense of hope.

I've thought long about why Miss N asked me this the other day. It's been a rough two years. I'm still navigating my way through the loss of a career for which I carry a great sense of passion, and through my attempts at becoming an entrepreneur and directing that passion toward helping children in another capacity. We've all been forced to exercise faith in a tomorrow that it is sometimes difficult to believe in, and in the months leading up to this Christmas I've had to share difficult news about where things stand for us.

Even so, our hearts are filled with excitement and anticipation. The tree is up and decorated, Christmas tunes fill our home, and we busy time not spent in the mundane but necessary everyday tasks with making gifts for family and friends. There is a pervading sense for each of us that this year the season offers not only peace, but necessary healing. In a way, Santa's already visited our home.

May your holidays be equally filled with Love, Light, and Laughter