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)  

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Storm and Bad Decisions

Hurricane Sandy as it hit East Coast Monday, October 29, 2012
This week was a big storm and it created a lot of emotion—excitement, dread, frustration, gratitude,  and loss.  Apparently affection too; my husband works at Walmart and says they ran out of condoms early.  He also says people were buying carts full of frozen food to stock up their supplies, which of course made little sense because chances were we were all going to lose power.  This led to a discussion of how randomly people were preparing for the storm, and how ill-prepared they’d be. 

Including me.  While I did some things right, like shop for cabinet staples on Thursday, gas up my car, get cash, eat through freezer for the weekend, get batteries, water, flashlights ready, empty yard and basement—I made mistakes too.  I realized on Sunday I had no coolers, and little ice.  My Dad brought me a cooler and when I read Jamie Pope’s very humorous blog about how to prepare on Monday morning she slid in something I had forgotten, to freeze containers of water.  Liz and Ava got right on this for me and we had another 14 hours of power after this so we did indeed have some ice for our cooler.  Some good friends who didn't lose power offered us their generator which we used on my mother and stepfather’s freezer next door.   It’s been a long seven days without power but we’re all right.

Justin Forman walks through the surf as tidal surge
from Hurricane Sandy comes ashore at Rehoboth Beach,
Delaware. Photographer: Jim Watson/AFp via Getty Images
This is not true for everyone.  On Tuesday morning as we were coming out into the remarkably calm morning to sweep up I saw that a neighbor had died, apparently from a fall in the dark night.  I also heard that a friend of my son’s had died Sunday in a kayaking accident, with his companion hospitalized for hypothermia.

I don’t know how the conversation went that led to the boys going out onto Silver Sands beach on Sunday to ride the waves but my guess it wasn’t the first risk-taking, thrill-seeking move either of them had ever made, or the only bad decision.  In some ways, their reaction to the storm—let’s go ride some waves—was the same as the customers at Walmart—let’s buy whatever food we can get at Walmart--which was emotional, and lacking in common sense. 

And before you say to yourself that I would never put myself at risk the way those boys did, and I don’t doubt most of us would not do the exact same thing, think about all the ways you do put yourself at risk.  Here is a short list of stupid things that I would guess most of us have done a time or two (or more) that are not only inarguably dumb (there would be tens of thousands of things on that list) but put also lives at risk.  In case you can’t tell by the specificity, I’ve done plenty of these myself: 

·         Walking away from the stove with burners on
·         Emptying ashes from fireplace or cast iron stove into a box
·         Leaving jar candles lit when you fell asleep
·         Overloading the circuits with Christmas light extension cords
·         Climbing onto the roof to hang Christmas lights without someone holding the ladder
·         Climbing a tree to cut down limbs (or just for fun) and leaning on a rotten branch.
·         Taking a ski lift to a trail that’s too hard, and having too much pride to call for ski patrol
·         Taking an unknown pill someone hands you for back pain, or recreation
·         Going on a hike without supplies to cover you if you get lost
·         Going on a hike and getting separated from the person with the supplies
·         Getting into a car when you’re too upset to drive safely
·         Getting into a car when you’re too drunk to drive safely
·         Getting into a car when the driver is possibly too drunk to drive safely
·         Getting distracted when driving by the kids screaming, or the phone ringing
·         Getting distracted at an intersection and jumping your traffic light
·         Trying to beat a light that’s turning red
·         Texting while driving
·         Falling asleep at the wheel for a moment, and hitting the rumble strip
·         Driving too fast in the snow or the rain
·         Driving too fast when you’re late picking up kids at a darkening soccer field
·         Driving yourself to the doctor’s office to see if you are in early labor
·         Driving yourself to the hospital to be checked out for chest pains
·         Driving to work with the baby in the back seat, forgetting the day care stop
·         Leaving the car running when you forgot something inside the house
·         Leaving young kids in the car when you run into the store to pick up milk
·         Leaving young kids home by themselves while you chase your runaway dog
·         Leaving young kids in the tub while you go to check on dinner on top of the stove
·         Letting your kids have unlimited access to the internet
·         Letting your kids walk to the beach in a big storm to take pictures
·         Letting your kids have a sleepover at a house where you don’t know the parent
·         Letting your kids get their license even though they are impulsive, and feel immortal
·         Going home with someone you met at a bar or a party, or bringing them to your home
·         Going out to a bar or party with someone you don’t know well, who leaves you there
·         Going to a big, crowded event with lax security and hoping nothing bad happens

There are likely hundreds of more examples that ER doctors, or firefighters, or police could tell us about; it must be a miracle when they have any faith at all in human intellect and self-protection.  We should all be more careful, and not rely on the faint and irrational hope that because we’ve done a lot of stupid things and something tragic hasn’t happened to us or our loved ones so far, it can’t or won’t.   We are natural thrill-seekers and risk-takers, and all the dire warnings throughout our lives don't always hold us back.

If it’s already happened, you know this to be true. 

And when it does come to pass, and we lose someone or almost lose someone due to a bad decision on someone’s part, all we should express is compassion.  I might not have been Jet Krumwiede, out in the kayak, but I could have been his mother.  When some horrible mistake happens all we can do is feel sorrow for the tragedy because it was preventable, but only if we weren’t human.