Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Marriage Secret

I was trying, and failing, to explain something coherently to my husband this week.  I'll never remember now what the topic was but at the time, it was very important to me.  Patient as ever (it might have helped that we were in our whirlpool tub) he listened until I gave up and said "This is me on brain damage.  Can't pull it off today."  Or something like that.

And then he laughed, and laughed, and said "If this is you on brain damage it's been a lot of fun."

Together at the top of a Vermont mountain
That he meant this in all seriousness is why I'm lucky I married the man.  This week was our 26th wedding anniversary and I'm very grateful for every one of our thirty-odd years together.  The safety and joy of this relationship, for me,  has been a very lovely spot from which to venture out into life, and to retreat back into at the end of every day.

And the key?  Though we've smoothed out some of the sharp edges of where the person he is and the person I am jostle against each other, it's largely been the Serenity Prayer:

But without the change :)

And good thing, because even though we weren't fully-formed when we met and started dating as teenagers, we haven't changed much.  If we had spent a lot of our time trying to change the other to make them better spouses, we would not have had much energy for the other challenges in our lives.  

For us, it's almost exclusively "accept," at least for the last twenty years or so, once we grew all the way up and understood the world, and how you can barely manage changes within yourself.  Trying to pull them off in someone else, even one you love and have a lot of influence over, is not only difficult, painful and frustrating, but rarely worth the effort.  It's like changing rock to pebbles, or sand.  You can use the sledgehammer of your position to do it, but something is lost.

Because whatever success you feel you earned from the change, and the pleasure you reap from of that different behavior, the loading of the dishes this way or that, the eating healthier or going out more, is outweighed almost immediately by resentment by the other person who didn't like being coerced.  Didn't want to be changed.  Would have done it themselves if they did.  Doesn't like you quite as much.  Doesn't think you as nice a person as you think you are.  

If you were that nice, and loved them, you would have accepted them as they were.  

I don't think this means you should pick someone who has no unbearable flaws.  Any such search would be futile, because we all have them.  Nor should you pick someone so much like yourself that you think there will be little conflict, few things you'd need to change.  Because not only would that be boring, but also narcissistic.  Who's to say you're so great you need a near-duplicate?  And, on top of it all, conflict can occur between two very similar people as intensely as it does between opposites.  Have you ever seen twins go at it?  Not pretty.  They know every vulnerability the other possesses and go after them with ruthless intent.  

No, the point is really to enjoy all the things that are different between the two of you, and enjoy them, possibly even more, than the things that are united.  This is the final stage of love I wrote about in October.  Though our marriage doesn't live there, it does occasionally visit, when we not only accept our differences, but celebrate them.  

So, here, for my anniversary, are some of the ways Mark and I are different.  And, for the record, nearly always have been.  
  • One of us wakes up early
  • One of us stays up late
  • One of us eats meat
  • One of us watches television
  • One of us has written poetry
  • One of us is lazy
  • One of us is a good cook
  • One of us is good at cleaning
  • One of us has a sense of humor
  • One of us finds kid chaos fun
  • One of us makes the other coffee in the morning
  • One of us can fix things around the house
  • One of us likes to stay in touch with teachers
  • One of us is good with money
  • One of us likes to go out
  • One of us is social and friendly
  • One of us has a strong sex drive
  • One of us is a flirt
  • One of us is prone to depression and anxiety
  • One of us is a good planner
  • One of us pays the bills
  • One of us has more influence with our girls
  • One of us has more influence with our boys
  • One of us is usually content with their body
  • One of us has chronic pain
  • One of us has common sense
  • One of us got a doctorate in their twenties
  • One of us got a bachelor's in their forties
  • One of us has hiked the Appalachian trail
  • One of us can swim a mile 
  • One of us can run five miles
  • One of us can talk for an hour straight
  • One of us is extremely hard-working
  • One of us loves baseball
  • One of us is romantic
  • One of us is stubborn
  • One of us has a lot of self-doubt
  • One of us is overconfident
  • One of us adjusts their work schedule for our kids' sporting events
  • One of us can quell our kids' complaints with one look
  • One of us is a lot of fun to be around
  • One of us is intellectual
  • One of us is emotional
  • One of us has chronic insomnia
  • One of us is chronically tired
  • One of us writes for hours a day
  • One of us likes to shop
  • One of us remembers birthdays
  • One of us makes lists...
Like this one :)

There, I gave that one away but which of us is matched to some of the others would surprise you, and that's the way it will stay.  Only two people are in this marriage, and we keep each other's secrets well.  This list doesn't cover the half of what's between us, just some of the surface stuff, but it's enough that we could have spent a good, long time trying to get more in sync.  

Glad we didn't.  It's made our lives more pleasant, and fascinating.  

But not easier.  Did I say any of this was easy?  We've been in counseling.  We've been ready to kill each other.  We've been hurt, and angry, and gone the occasional day or two without talking.  But we've never sworn at each other.  I think that helps.  And we've always loved each other.  Obviously crucial.  And we've never expected anything in life to be easy.  

Because it's the hardships, sometimes, that make life worthwhile.  

Have you seen the full Serenity Prayer lately?  It makes all this clear:

Happy anniversary, love.  
You make me supremely happy.
xxoo Lisa

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Favorite Things

It's a somber time, it's been a hard year for a lot of us, but Christmas is resilient.

Even after a fire, disaster, or tragedy we try to give our kids a sweet day.  Twenty years ago I would have been hunting down toys and visiting Santa but now it's more low-key, "What do you need?" and "How are you for shoes?"  Some of my kids don't get up any earlier than they would on any other day.  Later, in fact, not too many surprises awaiting under the tree.

This year, I think, it will be more low-key still.  We have a grandchild we've been able to shield from the news, and she's excited, so that will be fun.  Three-year-olds are just plain fun anyway.  She makes me be Swiper when I'm babysitting at night.  Sometimes that's the only time I'll laugh all day.  She's  hilarious.When I write she'll sit in my room with me and draw on a hundred post-it notes, sticking them all over my walls to entertain herself.  She's a love.

So we'll have a good time for her, and everyone loves a stocking, and most of us will go to Church, and thank God for sending us his Son to try to help us understand what's important and meaningful in life.

And then there will be presents.

What put presents into perspective for me this year was the realization, as I was sitting in Church last week zoning in and out, still in shock, thoughts racing, that no matter what happens on Christmas, it won't change who's most precious to me, or even what.  I have more than I need, many times over, and though I am grateful, I am not greedy.  I could get by on far less, and have, and will again.    

Anything I get for Christmas will be "extra" and not replace the essentials things I use in my daily life that make me happy and productive.  I took some time this week to narrow these down to an even dozen.  

Try it yourself.  It's kind of interesting.  

As you can see, they're more practical than sentimental, which describes me, I think. But I have strong feelings even about the practical things.  

My house keeps me safe and, except for the week after Sandy, keeps me warm. 

My computer helps me write. 

My phone (above) keeps me in contact with my family, and substitutes for a book or a camera I forgot.

My sneakers keep me healthy and happy on walks, my favorite clothes help me feel better about myself. 

My car is utterly reliable, leaves me money for things other than gas, and is easy on my back on long rides.  

My bed and and bookshelves and bathtub are my relaxation and pleasure.

My washer and dryer are the love of my daily chore life, fast and easy and in my kitchen so I don't have to hike cellar stairs.

My coffeemaker with its autoset gives me a reason to rise early to write--it's warmth and comfort and luscious aroma waiting for me in the dark and the chill of the house before dawn. 

There there's the two sentimental things:

My daily jewelry, linking me to the people and stories associated with each piece .

The scrapbooks I've spent years on, one for each child (or more, sorry to all of you who aren't the youngest, when your Mom finally got a nice camera)  plus ones for all our trips and holidays.  

I'd have Mark help me drag these scrapbooks out if we had a flood, after we saved all the people and our dog.  But before we worried about medications and passports and car deeds or even computers--those things are replaceable, backed-up somewhere else.  Visual memories of my kids' childhoods are not, and took hundreds of hours to create.  They're important.  

Still, as you scroll down, it is so obvious that even with the care that I put into and take out of these things, they're just objects, and truthfully, as happy as these things make me, if my favorite things weren't these exact objects, they would be others.  Because favorites come from the midst of things we possess. My dozen next-favorite things would be up top.  Or other things.  It wouldn't really matter.  I'd be the same person in different clothing, a different house, with a different car.  Maybe, sadly, without the scrapbooks.

But if I didn't have the important people in my life, I'd be a different person.

In a year that's been hard, and even one that's not, giving presents to each other doesn't make a lasting difference in our lives.  

It's a pleasure, and it's fun, but in the end it's just another way to say "I love you" and "I want you to be happy."

It's a way to say "I'm glad you're here."

Merry Christmas
Love, Lisa

Sunday, December 16, 2012


My daughter Cait turns twenty-five today.  We had a great party last night at Pacifica in New Haven, organized by her boyfriend, Luis, and today we'll have cake.  She was a wonderful kid, and she's an amazing adult.

Just like the bad stuff in life, you never really can never really predict the good stuff like this, can you?

On the rare occasion that I'm driving with my mother in Providence she'll point out the walk-up apartment on Angell St. where I was conceived.  My response has typically been "eeww" because it seems to be about sex, but it's not, or at least not much.  It's about two loving, optimistic, just-married  22-year-olds, just-finishing college, wanting to be parents.  I understand it now.  I did the exact same thing 22 years later, about ten blocks north off of Hope Street.

Sometimes all that just turns out so much better than you'd even dreamed. 
For us, that person is Caitlin.

Cait was born at almost the end of my first semester of grad school.  She came a little early.  I missed one final.  My cousin Bridget lived with us and had just graduated early from high school in Providence so we moved to Coventry and set up house off Lake Tiogue.  We were each in school and working and happy to have Caitlin join our lives.  We made a nursery.  We had a baby shower.  I breezed through the pregnancy.  I was excited as heck.   

When I got to grad school I found out they thought it was such a big deal that they encouraged all students to hold off on children until after graduation (for me that would have been 7 years), or take time off.  There was no part-time.  I pondered this for a little while, and then decided to just ignore it.  I hid the pregnancy until November.  She was born a month later.  They adjusted their program to fit us.  It all worked out fine.  

Luis and Caitlin
She was colicky.  She beat her father to a pulp on days he was home and I was at school.  She was desperate to get to school, so we started her at four.  She was the youngest in her classes.  She did fantastic from the start.  She's rolled with being in a big family far better than many of her younger siblings, even though much was expected of her as the oldest child.  She was scared of the dark, and was happy to share a room and even a bed with her sisters until she was a teenager.  She surpassed me in baking skill by age twelve.  She ran cross-country at Law.  Taught kindergartners in Sunday School.  Cooked at the Beth-El homeless shelter.  Got her Bachelor's degree at Southern and her Master's Degree at Sacred Heart and is getting her Behavior Analyst certification at St. Joseph's.  Traveled to Paris, Belize, Costa Rica. Woke her sisters up in Disneyworld by jumping on their beds singing "Good Morning Baltimore!" with a hairbrush.   She works with autistic students at the Connecticut Center for Child Development, and at a group home for Youth Continuum.  She has a boyfriend, many friends, and a family who loves her.  Sometimes she comes by to just give me a kiss, or to henna my hair, or for a family dinner.  Sometimes to help make dinner.  She and her boyfriend Luis babysit when Mark and I go away on trips, taking over all our tasks while keeping their  own lives going.  Of course there's been challenges but all so much worth it.  We are blessed many times over with this girl.  

Ciara and Caitlin
But none of this really describes how the world has changed because she's in it.  If I were to calculate all the lives she's made better just by existing, it would have to be in the thousands.  Classmates she befriended, in Rhode Island and then Connecticut.  Teachers she charmed.  Coaches she made proud.  Kids she babysat and played with.  Sisters she slept over for on Christmas Eve so they could open stockings together.  Friends she baked for when they were low.  Clients and students she helped through bad days, and good.  Customers during her years at the Milford Starbucks that she cheered with her sweetness and her silly.  Fellow students she helped with her smarts.  Waitresses she tipped well.  Retail clerks she made laugh.  Family she's loved.

Luis and Cait with Lizzy
It seems, in the end, that her father and I have had just this tiny little part in who she's become, like when she was born we rolled a boulder-full of life energy down a hill and she's picked up speed and karma all along the way, becoming  this incredible person that has immersed herself so fully in life, touched so many other lives, and been affected by so many other people that in the end you can just sit back in wonder, and think "wow."  I'm lucky I was here just to watch.  

Life is unexpectedly grand sometimes, remarkable almost beyond words, and there's no better evidence than Caitlin.

Happy birthday, baby.  
I love you, 

Saturday, December 15, 2012


I grew up feeling safe in my elementary school, Kay Avenue.  I loved it, actually.  I stayed there 9 years, kindergarten to eighth grade and remembered every "milestone" move, from the K-2nd first floor to the 3rd-4th second floor to the "new" 5th-6th grade circle-wing to the 7th-8th grade "big" hall.  I had the same principal the whole time, Charles Hayden, and he seemed strong enough to hold trouble at bay single-handed.  I heard how he yelled at the boys who were making trouble.  As you can imagine from my adoration, he never yelled at me.  

The year after I graduated to high school, there was a shooting in San Diego.  It changed my internal image of grammar school as a safe place. It's the incident that led to Bob Geldorf writing "I Don't Like Mondays" for the Boomtown Rats.  Forever after I imagined someone shooting out of a window on Milford Point Road into the playground.  Kay Ave. School is now West Shore Middle School and I've had seven of my eight kids go to school there, three years each.  My youngest is in sixth grade there.  It's made me feel like they were very vulnerable, and that it would be difficult to get them through childhood in one piece, and I've never been able to shake that sense that anything could happen to them. I tend to be thankful on Thanksgiving that we're all just here.  I don't think this makes me a morbid person, but you could say my standards for peace and happiness are fairly low and have always been.  I think that makes for greater happiness--all kids present and accounted for, and I'm good.  

I looked up the details from the San Diego shooting yesterday, and here's what wikipedia has:   16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer fired at children in a school playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California on 29 January 1979, killing two adults and injuring eight children and one police officer. Spencer showed no remorse for her crime and her full explanation for her actions was "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day".

I also looked up her weapon.  Here's what it said:  For Christmas in 1978, her father, Wallace Spence, gave her a Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle with a telescopic sight and 500 rounds of ammunition.  Before her parole board in 1999, she said:  "I asked for a radio and he bought me a gun."  To the question as to why he might have done that, she answered:  "I felt like he wanted me to kill myself."

But how, I ask you, does one kill themselves with that gun and that much ammo?  It doesn't make any sense, and that's the theme here.  You're not going to ever have a satisfying answer to "Why?"  And, the San Diego shooting was near the start of the damage crazed people began to do with higher fire-power.  

Because the thing about semi-automatic weapons is that you can kill more people before you are stopped.  It really has nothing to do with whether you will try to kill other people if that's what you have it in your mind to do.  We have a mental health system that is designed to hospitalize and treat, even against their will, people who are assessed to be at risk for harming themselves or others.  Homicidality, if assessed to be acute (i.e. you are thinking of doing something specific and soon) will get you hospitalized every time, and monitored carefully by staff and psychiatrists.  The thing is--if it's a chronic fantasy of fame or vengeance, without a lot of specifics at the time you're assessed, then no one can hold you any longer.  And you've learned not to talk so openly about your ideas.
Over the years there have been some indications of what warning signs to look for. The New York Times published an analysis in 2000 of what was known about 102 people who had committed 100 rampage killings at schools, job sites and public places like malls.
Most had left a road map of red flags, plotting their attacks and accumulating weapons. In the 100 rampage killings reviewed, 54 of the killers had talked explicitly of when and where they would act, and against whom. In 34 of the cases, worried friends or family members had desperately sought help in advance, only to be rebuffed by the police, school officials or mental health workers.  If it's not a specific threat with a clear timeline, it's hard to do much about it.  Thousands of kids are assessed every year by mental health professionals because they've made a threat to harm others at school.  Many thousands of adults.  It's a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack process determining which of this avalanche of troubled folks is going to do something violent.  
I have no idea if anyone treated Adam Lanza, or why his parents had guns in their homes,
Bushmaster XM15-E2S
Type used in Sandy Hook shootings
but know that there are likely millions of similar situations in our country alone--guns in the home of someone who's fantasized about shooting people.  There are about 50 million homes (about half) in this country that have guns in them, most of them legally bought and licensed.   About 40% of gun permit applications are denied because of background check issues, either felony charges or mental health conditions.  To get a gun you need a background check except at gun shows, where you can buy them from private sellers without the background check.  These are things you'll likely hear a lot about as we enter a new discussion about gun control in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting in July, the Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August, the Oregon mall shooting last week and now the nightmare in Newtown.  
All four shootings, and all mass shootings in recent history, involve use of semi-automatic weapons because you can shoot up to 50 bullets a minute with one, depending on the size of the magazine that holds the bullets ready for the gun.  The last mass shooting I remember that didn't involve a semi-automatic was at Dunblane Elementar, Scotland in 1996 that killed 16 kids (ages 5-6) and one adult.  That man had two handguns (Smith & Wesson, capable of 6 shots without reloading) but also two semi-automatic Brownings (17 rounds per).  If they don't legally posses the guns in their house, given the frequency that they're somewhere in the neighborhood, you can steal one like the Oregon kid did.  
Shooters will sometimes plan for months, or years.  The 2010 shootings in Norway, on the surface about politics but later found to be mental illness, involved a guns accumulated over the course of almost two years.  The guy went to Prague because he heard it was easy to get semi-automatics there, but it wasn't, so he had to join a local gun club and practice target shooting for months before he would buy the Glock he wanted to go with the Ruger he got for shooting deer.  He also started an agricultural company so he could get the fertilizer he wanted for the car bomb.  He injured at least 319 people, of whom 77 died, mostly kids at summer camp.
There was security on the island for that summer camp.  When the shooter arrived on the island, he presented himself as a police officer who had come over for a routine check following the bombing in Oslo.   He had on a uniform and carried ID and the person at the gate let him in.  He was met by Monica Bøsei, the camp leader and island hostess. Bøsei probably became suspicious and contacted Trond Berntsen, the security officer on the island, before the gunman killed them both.   He then called the kids together to "inform" them of the bombing he'd set off 90 minutes prior in Oslo, and began shooting the kids when they complied.  
Adam Lanza shot his way into the school, correcting earlier reports that he was buzzed in.  It doesn't matter.  School secretaries buzz just about everyone in at the schools my kids go to.  How are they to know what a shooter looks like?  Or, more specifically, a homicidal, mentally ill person hiding weapons and a plan to kill?  
It would be good if there was an easy answer to stop all this.  Getting rid of legal semi-automatics seems  like a no-brainer to me.  Michelle Bachman loves to use the AK-15 rifle (used in Aurora and Oregon) in target practice because it's so accurate but no matter--she can find another gun to play with like that.  Better not to have those out there, with the capability of taking out a classroom or two of little kids in under five minutes, no?  But our Supreme Court has knocking down city ordinances attempting such a thing for years now, and expanding gun rights to include individual when it was originally just thought to be militias in the 2nd amendment.  Just because we had a full Brady law in place 1994-2004 doesn't mean it would be easy to now.  But then again, we've had four mass murders in just over four months.  Maybe something will change.  
In the United Kingdom, after Dunblane, they went so far as to ban legal possession of all handguns, which are not semi-automatic, possibly because he used two of those.  Private citizens do not legally own guns in any of the United Kingdom countries.  They've still had incidents, the worst in Cumbria   in 2010, but it wasn't a semi-automatic.  
In Norway they banned violent video games, taking off the shelves all the shooter games like Call of Duty that indulge in gratuitous violence, and teach target practice.  I think this is interesting, because there's no doubt in my mind that if you are of a homicidal bent, this will fuel it.  Then again, for the 99% plus percent of people who just use it for fun?  Hard again to imagine we're going to ban it from them.  We're a freedom-centric country.  We don't take away from all because of the risk to a few.  And, the Norway ban was temporary.  The games are back on the shelves.
Security at schools? Gosh, I don't know.  The San Diego and Dunblane attacks occurred on the playground.  Columbine was by students who attended the school.  I like the idea, and it does make people think "why is this person here?  do they have a legitimate reason?" every time they press the buzzer to let someone in and that's good.  It also makes "locking down" a school possible when there's an imminent threat in the area.  But I grew up in a school with open doors, and if every school in the country had open doors I'm not sure we'd have more school shootings.  It may be one of those things that makes people feel better about living with their risks in their lives.
Metal detectors?  For the kids and visitors?  They make sense when you're trying to  prevent kids from bringing in weapons to take each other out in petty feuds.  When that risk is reasonably high, it's already happening.  When the risk is low, and psychological harm to the kids high?  I don't see it happening in grammar schools because--think about it--in Newtown, if the shooter set off the metal detector, he would have just shot the security guard too.  That's what happened in Oslo.  No one with homicide on their mind lifts their arms for a pat-down or a wand.
Our airports are safe, because you're not allowed to carry guns and TSA, despite their flaws, keeps weapons out of luggage, off of people and out of planes.  All good.  They also do it at relatively few sites, and at tremendous expenditure of time, effort and money.  That's necessary to keep our air transportation running post-9/11, and it's good.  But it's not practical to do that anywhere else.  Who would go through an x-ray machine every time they went to the mall to walk some laps?  
Because here's the gist--we live in a country already has more than 350 million guns in it.  Where violent movies and video games and music is rampant.  Where there's ways to buy guns from private sellers without any oversight (if you don't try to register it), and from the street without any serial numbers.  In any country there's risks to growing up.  In our society, those risks include a significant amount of gun violence.
Pediatricians now ask in their screenings about whether you have guns and how they're locked up.  They should.  When I was growing up my three "closest calls" were an attempted kidnapping (foiled by my brother and Vinny Ditchkus), a Vienna sausage incident (I was a hungry baby) and nearly being killed by a gun.  When I was a baby we lived upstairs from a woman who worked overnight and left her 10-year-old son with a shotgun at night so he'd feel safe.  One night he dropped it, so he says.  It shot through his ceiling, our floor, and my crib, a few inches from my sleeping body.  
As I staggered through yesterday, half-stunned and half-terrified by the deaths of so many children, I wondered again how any of us make it through childhood.  How terrible a message that is for our kids to hear.  And how impossible it seems to give them a sense of safety and security, at least since 9-11.  
And then my daughter, at West Shore Middle, asked for pizza, and began to play with her State Quarters collection, and I thought about how violent our country has always been, and how kids become our refuge from it because of their innocence, so that when they too are attacked we lose our ability to cope with the violence in our society.  That's what happened to me when I heard about Newtown.  I was numb and anguished both, and I didn't know what to do with myself.  
So I, like others, started thinking about the guns, and whether anyone ever assessed that kid for violence potential, and how to improve safety in schools, and all the things you're thinking.  And this is what I came up with, the framework of it taken from the treatment of self-harm called DBT, which holds that two seemingly opposite things can both be true:
As a country we've tried hard to prevent homicidal, mentally ill individuals from being able to act on their impulses, to balance their right for individual freedom with the duty to protect society, and to balance the right be bear arms with the duty to keep them from harming other citizens. 
And when this keeps happening it tells us the balance is off.  Semis are too easy to procure and use.  We need to get them out of the hands of people who will use them to harm others.   Our kids see so much violence they're becoming numb, and now they see they're not safe at school.  These are big legislative, law enforcement, cultural and social problems we need to face.  And I know we can do better.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

Learning Disabilities and Life

This week I went back to my supervisors at work and tried to work out alternate job responsibilities I could handle despite the persistence of post-concussive problems I'm having.  They were beyond kind and flexible, and I left there with some hope that I'd be going back to work soon.

When I met with the neurologist two days later, however, what I could describe in terms of the conversation
was a jumble.  They'd said...I could maybe work with students?  I'd have to stay away from patients?  I told them I could...what exactly? [In retrospect a checklist something like this would have been useful].

I had written notes from before and after my meeting with my wonderful supervisors, and have those.  I am not sure I covered all these but I have them listed and worked off this.  I am having problems with:

  • attention/distractability (severe)
  • organization/problem-solving (moderate)
  • fatigue/insomnia (moderate)
  • overwhelmed by noise/activity (severe)
  • memory (short and long-term, mild now)
  • headaches (mild)
  • processing speed delays (mild)
What I was really excited about was my general confusion, by "cloudy thinking" or feeling half-drunk all the time, was lessened significantly by the use of Adderall.  When it returns midday, I'm taking another dose.  That gets me to dinner time, when using anymore will likely worsen my sleep problems, but this was enough to get through a work day.  The fact that I still can't reliably make dinner was not relevant to that discussion.  They seemed excited too.  They had lots of work not getting done, projects I could tackle, folks needing supervision.  If I did well in an office setting, in relative quiet, then that's what they'd have me do.  Fantastic.  

After the meeting I came home and took a three hour nap.  I was exhausted from thinking so much.  It had been a 45 minute meeting.  I woke up scattered and confused, not only because the Adderall had worn off mid-nap, but because I couldn't really remember what we talked about.  Still don't, just have the notes.  I had pulled into a commuter lot right outside the hospital's entry road to put them down before I forgot.  Had underlined that I wanted to be competent and be given responsibilities I could do as well.  Please.  

When I went to see the doctor, I didn't have the notes (he's not a fan of the notes anyway), and didn't make much sense.  Having trouble making dinner, and sleeping.  Can't go to parties.  Can write in my bedroom during the day when kids are gone and it;s quiet.  Would like to go back to work and be more productive.  Just need some general guidelines to give bosses regarding my limitations.  

I could tell from my husband's face that it came across as...struggling.  

When the doctor upped the Adderall dose a third time, and added Lexapro, I was confused, almost speechless.  He made another appointment in two months.  He said take care of myself.  

In the car I realized that him not believing I had true problems had been bad, but his actually believing them?  Worse.  

My husband wanting to drop off the prescriptions right away so I could start that night?

Now before you say "why on earth did she think she was ready to go back to work in a busy psychiatric hospital?" let me explain.  The last time I saw the doctor, in October, he'd said he didn't think there was anything wrong with me other than, perhaps, a fear of returning to work and getting hurt again, or at least that was his best guess.  That is all in an October post here.   

At 30th high school reunion with Angela Pietrowski (left)
and Carol Tomasetti (right)
Also, if you were to meet and talk with me, I seem pretty fine.  When I was stuttering?  Couldn't find words?  Had long pauses between questions and answers?  That was pretty clear.  Now?  I seem a little...vague.  If you didn't know me before, you wouldn't know anything was different. I went to my high school reunion and managed, with the invaluable assistance of the name tags. My supervisors this week didn't say "Are you sure this is a good idea?"  People trust my judgment.  What the doctor's, and my husband's reaction told me was--maybe they shouldn't.

Big, heavy, tired, sigh here.  

Last week a friend gave me a link to Jane McGonigal talking about how designing a video game helped her get better after a concussion.  The link to her remarkable talk about it is here and the link to the game here.  She's an amazing person and the game is fun, but I thought (last week) that I didn't really need it anymore.  I was better-enough.  So, this week I started to play.  

The hopeful part is this:  Like the inattention, distractability and disorganization seem like ADHD, I've realized that the processing speed problems, the getting overwhelmed and the memory problems seem like learning disabilities.  I know I am stretching for everyday ways experiences to link to mine, because there's still not a lot out there about concussion, repeat concussion, post-concussion, or in my case repeat concussion in midlife with persistent post-concussive complications.     

So we'll stick with ADHD and learning disabilities.  And on my dog-walking excursion yesterday I wondered--what if you had such significant learning disabilities and ADHD that you could not do your job without significant modifications and adaptations.  And even then you might not be able to do it well.  Wouldn't the world be a crazy place trying to make everything work?  Oh, I'm sorry I gave you the wrong change, that's my learning disability.  Oh, I forgot to lock up last night, I'm sorry we were robbed, but that was my ADHD.  It sounds like a lot of excuses to me.  

But from the other side of it, if you're trying your utmost and still having difficulty doing things many other people do with nary a thought, then it's not a character flaw either.  It's lack of that ability, for whatever reason.  And it naturally limits what you can do well for work.  It's limiting me in ways I deeply resent.  

What I would like is all my God-given abilities back.  I liked them.  I fell like they were mine for a lifetime.  But I also know Job 1:21: 

"The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Love, Lisa

Monday, December 3, 2012

Holiday Rituals and Straitjackets

With few exceptions, I've found that my limit for doing something as a holiday ritual is about five years.

That's about how many times we drove around a spectacle of lights, went to see the downtown tree lighting with Santa arriving on a fire truck, hosted a big New Year's party, bought tickets to the Nutcracker, went out and chopped down a Christmas tree, watched Charlie Brown Christmas as a family and had our kids pick a Secret Santa in the family to give a present to.  After that, it feels like a holiday straitjacket to me.

Our tree as decorated by
Shey, Ava, Lizzy &
Vanessa last night
I know other people are different.  If they could, they would take the year that everything clicked holiday-wise and replay it for decades, same wreath, same parties, same foods, same people, even same tree if it's artificial, or they can find a way to preserve it indefinitely.  Some of my kids would be like this if they could.  Yesterday, Sheyanne was distressed that we (and by that I mean my husband Mark) weren't going to Stew Leonard's for a tree the way we (again) did last year.  Mark wasn't going to do it.  It wasn't that much fun for him last year given the traffic on the trip to and from Norwalk, the crowds at the store and the proximity of just-as-nice trees within a mile or two of our house.

So they went to the Sundae House and had a great time.  Next year Sheyanne will ask to go there.  She can't help it.  She loves the rituals.

There are some I don't tire of.  These tend to be the easier ones, which of course says a lot about me but there it is--having fun is not supposed to be a lot of work.  I like cinnamon rolls on holiday mornings (all of the big ones, from Easter to New Year's) and the way we have our stockings hung around windows in our house.  I like the routine we started six whole years ago of assigning each of our kids a code names (we've used planets, baseball teams, Greek gods, Egyptian pharaohs, continents and this year will be Disney characters) so that I can wrap their presents and put them under the tree early.  On Christmas Eve I just switch the tags and am done--fun and easy.  I like white lights around the house (so much we never take them down), Christmas Eve at my Dad's, Christmas morning at my Mom's, and pictures with Santa for kids under ten.  I like Christmas Eve mass at St. Gabriel's with the living creche, and the pot-luck party at the K of C that Meg Stofko puts together every year.  I like that my mother and my husband both fill me a stocking, of course, they have great taste.  I like shopping for gifts and making others happy in the same way.  I even like Black Friday, and went out with Ciara this year at 4:30 to stock up on deals.

I would go beyond like to say I need a Christmas card photo of my kids every year.  I don't know why--just to broadcast that we'd all made it through another year?  Pride?  Love?  It doesn't matter, it has to happen.

This has been decidedly not easy over the years, in fact some of the more difficult hours of my life.  Getting the kids into a Sears studio in coordinated outfits was such painful effort that Mark would try to make sure he was working that day.  If he wasn't he'd need a drink before to prepare and after to recover.  The kids began to dread it.  They were all so badly behaved, even more so as they grew "too old" for it.  It was a straitjacket I was putting them into and they're strong, and wiggly.  Last year I wised-up and just herded them into the backyard on Thanksgiving in whatever they were wearing and snapped some shots, uploaded them onto snapfish and ordered the cards.  This is now my favorite ritual because--yes--it's fun and easy.

I worked with a great guy named Kevin for many years, and his equally wonderful wife Marge made Christmas cookies and (for St. Patrick's Day) Irish soda bread that he distributed throughout our hospital.  One year the holidays came and went without either.  He said it wasn't fun for her anymore.  So many people had come to rely on, ask about and expect her to spend hours baking that it had become a chore.  Good for her.  A year or two later they came back, having recovered their charm for Marge.  Good for us.  

This is one of those play-it-by-ear rituals for me.  I like baking, and I like eating, and I buy holiday food magazines to get ideas each year for both, but I don't like anyone saying I have to do anything for them unless it's my boss and they have a good reason.  Once it becomes an obligation it loses its fun, and the "magic" of the holidays comes from all that we do coming from the goodness in our hearts and not the pressure of our guilt (Where does that reside anyway?  For me, in my rear end).

So happy holidays, enjoy the month, have fun at your rituals, try something new (to find a new favorite) and if you need help wriggling out of a straitjacket let me know--raising kids for twenty-five years has made me very skilled at saying no.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Writing about Bullying and Everything Else

My son Chris had ACL reconstruction and a meniscal repair last week and it made me cranky.

There were the circumstances of his injury, a fight he started but got by far the worst of when other kids jumped in and pummeled him.  There was the convincing him to go through with the surgery now that he's eighteen and gives his own medical consent--he preferred to hobble through rather than face the risks of anesthesia and the difficulty of rehabbing the knee--until it really started to hurt after a few months.  There was the getting to the hospital on their timetable when Chris far prefers to keep his own and let the world wait.  There was the interminable wait for hours of parent panic in a room filled with other equally anxious folk.  The getting him home from the outpatient surgery when he refused to fully wake and yet needed to learn crutches and tolerate a knee immobilizer.  Then the arguments, over the locked-up xbox that he wanted to spend hours on shooting people, over when he could put weight on the leg, over whether he could use crutches to go up and down the stairs, and whether other kids were allowed in the living room if their every move, every word, every breath annoyed him.  And then there was the pain, the ice, the intolerance for the meds, the inability to sleep for two nights, and the addition of another ten days at home together when we struggle to get along just on weekends.  Of course, as you know, all this was many times worse for him.  

So, I chose not to write about it in the midst of both our misery.  

On the other side of it I can say this:  he handled a tough situation beautifully and has been brave and strong and relatively uncomplaining.  I'm proud of him, and I handled myself fine.  I'm thankful it all turned out well. 

And therein lies the beauty of perspective.  

What you're in the middle of today, that looks terribly difficult when it's before you, becomes just a small speed bump in your rear view mirror.  

On Thanksgiving we all try to take this message to heart, thinking back over the year just past and being grateful for all we've earned and been given.

I usually start and finish with my family all being safe and around the table.  Minimal standards, but over time I've boiled by gratitude down to its essence--all being present and accounted for.  If I had to add to it, I'd say being grateful for power and heat and food would be next.  Public education. Health insurance.   This year I might have added gratitude for the few moments during the meal when my granddaughter wasn't wailing.  It was a rough one for her.

If you asked my family, they'd say I should be grateful for their patience with my writing time.  I am grateful, to my husband especially, but not specifically for "letting" me write, because that often doesn't feel optional to me.  More for appreciating who I am, and letting me do what I feel the need to do.  That's love and I'm beyond grateful for it.  My kids?  They're not that patient.

I've always spent time writing at home--homework assignments and journals, letters and term papers, psych evals and newsletters and blogs.  I wrote for school until my thirtieth birthday, then for work until my forty-fifth and then, when I left a job I had that required a lot of writing, I began to write for myself.

Funny how over the last three years, as I began to write fiction in bursts and then in steady, daily labor, struggling to improve, to tell the stories in my head with more skill, it morphed into something else--no longer for school, or work, or myself, but for its own sake.  Like moving your body, or being funny or raising kids or being married--its own, all-encompassing effort, something you do because you live and this is one of the things that living people do.  They try to put life into words, into offspring, into relationships, and into...perspective.

From any perspective, living with a writer during November, if they are one who participates in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), is a chore.  This is my second year  and writers who have tackled the set goal of 50,000 words written in November (about 200 pages of a book) are advised, repeatedly, to ignore the laundry, lock their study doors, feed the kids cereal and ignore all but emergency requests from anyone for assistance on anything.  There are, literally, hundreds of articles on how to write at home in the midst of a maelstrom.  They all hit these same themes--you need to do this, you can do this, but you can't do it and everything else.  One NaNo logline is "The world is waiting for your novel."  If you internalize this message, as I have, then you do what you have to in order to write everyday, even when you lose power, have no heat, kids are fighting and you need to sleep.  Because everyday you're still moving your body, you're still funny, you're still raising kids, you're still married.  You still write.  It's who you are.  It's not optional.

It's also important.  Last month was anti-bullying month, and hundreds of Authors Against Bullying wrote about their experiences of being bullied, and their ideas on how to stop it.  Lots of them are good, and all heartfelt, and one or more is I'm sure going to change the way we think about the problem. And yet I'll admit--because I'm not published, I'm not sure I'm an author, and when Chris was beaten so badly that his ACL detached from his bone, and his kneecap shifted, and his meniscus was torn, and his other knee was torn up, and his face black and blue--I still didn't have much to say about bullying.  It's so complicated when someone who's been victimized becomes aggressive and bullies others.  Chris bullies his siblings in our home with the way he berates them, and ridicules them and teases them and fights with them.  Chris bullies me at times.  He's an unhappy eighteen-year-old kid.

With the perspective of having seen how much he's suffered from the fight he lost, and the damage done when other boys piled up on one kid who didn't have a lot of physical strength, and called in other kids who videotaped the beating on their cellphones and then passed it around to other kids for a laugh, I can see now that the heart of it is that he's been teased and bullied at school his whole life, and this is how it shows.

And thanks to my daughter Lizzy's softball clinic coach I have some new ideas of what to do about it.  He took 30 minutes from a 90 minute softball camp to explain to girls that the best way to stop bullying is to not gossip and to have as strong and competent a body and brain and spirit as possible.  When you do something well, no matter what it is, people tend to respect you, and when you  are confident in your body it shows.  

And here's where we come back to perspective, and writing one last time (today).  As I've tried to get better at writing, I've had a lot of help from other writers who critique my work and tell me how to make it stronger, but also from those who take a kind of glee from shredding it.  To help keep critique groups positive and keep writers from oppressive depression, I recently got a "cheatsheet" from a frequent contest judge who gave these simple anti-gossiping THINK steps (in another kind of format)  as the best way to give feedback to a contest writer but don't they really apply to giving your opinion on anything?  Coaching?  Teaching?  Parenting?  Supervising?  Marriage?  And the best way to train our kids to be better about this is to be better ourselves.  So the next time you start a sentence about a person you know with "I think ..." put it through this filter.

You'll either say something good, or nothing at all.

For those philosophers out there, you can either way that it's true, or seems so from your perspective:

Monday, November 12, 2012

What We Owe Our Soldiers

Saying "Happy Veteran's Day" doesn't quite fit, does it?

Because being a soldier can be many good things, but it's usually not happy.  It's physically grueling, frustrating, boring, terrifying, lonely and stressful.  It's dangerous, especially so over the past dozen years, and it's character-building, as many hard jobs are.  It can also break your soul, which most jobs cannot do, and even the best mental health professionals cannot always, on their own, make a suffering veteran whole again.  Nor can a family.  It may take all of us, accepting the sometimes-brutal work they do for us.  Brushing over that part makes their lives worse.

I grew up reading Tim O'Brien, and carried his book If I Die In A Combat Zone, Box Me Up And Ship Me Home in my backpack for a couple of years after it came out in 1979 when I was a freshman in high school.  He wrote it fast, when he was serving a year in Vietnam and before he came home, and it's a bit hallucinogenic but then again, it was Vietnam.  I thought his point was good--war veterans can't teach us about war, they can only tell war stories and we can learn what we will from them.  He wasn't in Iraq or Afghanistan, so he doesn't write about them, but he sees the parallels, this one from the New York Times:

O'Brien on Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan: “Obviously there are differences,” he said, “chief among them the absence of the draft. But there are enough similarities. These are wars in which there are no uniforms, no front, no rear. Who’s the enemy? What do you shoot back at? Whom do you trust? At the bottom, all wars are the same because they involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.” 

Tim O'Brien is not a pacifist, but he doesn't think we would have invaded Iraq or Afghanistan if there was a draft, that the standard for putting our collective lives on the line would have been higher than for a paid and volunteer military.  He and Tobias Wolff, another Vietnam veteran and writer, discussed this in thoughtful detail last year at Stanford (here is the link).

Then I read an essay that said everything I wanted to, but better, an editorial in the paper today.  Here's the original editorial by Warren Kinghorn in USA Today entitled "PTSD, The Moral Dimensions."

And here's what he wrote:

7:07PM EST November 11. 2012 - On this Veterans Day, hundreds of thousands of veterans suffer from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That medical diagnosis shouldn't disguise that this is more than a medical problem.
Combat in Iraq is over, and in Afghanistan it is winding down, but its heavy emotional toll remains. In 2012, more Army soldiers have died by suicide than have died by hostile fire in Afghanistan. An estimated 10%-20% of returning combat veterans meet criteria for PTSD. When these veterans come to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care facilities or other medical providers, they are often treated with medication and, increasingly, by short-term courses of talk therapy, which are known to be effective in reducing PTSD symptoms.
That is far from enough.
As a VA psychiatrist, I frequently diagnose veterans with PTSD and offer treatments that I believe to be helpful, even lifesaving. But I am wary of the way medical models often bring with them two assumptions about combat trauma that can be harmful to combat veterans' return to normal civilian lives.
The first common but misleading assumption is that combat trauma happens to a soldier. The official diagnostic criteria for PTSD specify that one must have "experienced, witnessed, or (have) been confronted with" an event involving actual or threatened death or injury to oneself or others, criteria that invite images of soldiers as victims of external situations and events. And in a great many cases — a sudden bomb blast, or an ambush, or the sight of a fellow soldier killed — this is exactly right.
Suffering more than medical
Even so, this assumption that trauma is something that happens only to soldiers obscures the truth: Many veterans suffer most not from what they received or witnessed in war, but from what they did. Psychologist Shira Maguen of the San Francisco VA Medical Center, for example, has documented that among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, taking the life of another person is linked both to the severity of PTSD symptoms and to thoughts of suicide. Maguen and other VA researchers have recently used the term "moral injury" to describe suffering in which veterans encounter inner conflict due to combat-related transgression of core ethical and moral beliefs. Veterans can suffer deeply, in other words, not just from things that happened to them but from an inability to live with themselves knowing all that they have done to others.
The second common but misleading assumption about combat trauma, related to the first, is that post-combat suffering is at root a technical problem in need of a technical solution. Modern medicine encourages technical thinking. If I have pneumonia, I take an antibiotic. If I have a blocked coronary artery, I undergo a cardiac procedure. If I have PTSD, I take medication or a course of psychotherapy.
There are advantages to this understanding of traumatic suffering, but there are also problems. To see traumatic suffering, particularly moral injury, as a technical, medical problem can easily rob it of its moral significance. If I treat a veteran's suffering as a technical problem to be medicated away, I can easily miss the fact that the person before me stands as testimony to the wars in which he or she fought. "Treating" veterans must not obscure the important moral stories that they have to tell.
Civilians' role
So, too, envisioning post-combat suffering as a technical problem places those of us who have not been to war in a far-too-easy position. If veterans' suffering is primarily a technical problem, then our duty to them, as a culture, is to provide them with the right forms of treatment. But this ignores the fact that just as we, as a culture, participated in causing veterans' suffering — we sent them to war, after all — so also we must collectively facilitate their healing and reconciliation upon returning home.
The VA and other health care systems need adequate resources to provide medical and psychiatric care for returning combat veterans. But perhaps even more than good medical care, veterans need individuals and communities who will commit to walk patiently alongside them, allowing them to tell their stories if and when they are ready to do so, even when these stories are distressing or complex or unbearably sad.
Veterans need a civilian culture that refuses to distance itself from them either through reflexive condemnation or, more commonly, through reflexive valorization. Sometimes, they need communities that can offer the non-medical languages of confession, repentance and forgiveness. And above all, they need to be taken seriously as moral beings who have stood for us in hazy and complicated places and who now bear witness to what that commitment entails.
Warren Kinghorn, a staff psychiatrist at the Durham VA Medical Center, is assistant professor of psychiatry and pastoral and moral theology at Duke University Medical Center and Duke Divinity School. 
(Images chosen and color highlights are my own--Lisa)