Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Reducing the Stigma: a personal story of how laughter and music have allowed me to talk openly about mental health
A former firefighter/paramedic with 20 years of experience, in 2001 Bryan appeared on ABC's "The View" with Barbara Walters as one of the funniest firefighters in America. Bryan has worked in emergency services for most of his life and several years ago was recognized by his community for assisting in the arrest of bank robbery suspects fleeing the Williamsburg area. Bryan is on the Board of Directors for the Williamsburg Area National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and has spoken at many Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainings throughout Virginia as well as CIT International Conferences. He is a tireless advocate promoting the CIT programs throughout Virginia. Bryan has spoken to hundreds of Virginia’s first responders, sharing his unique personal insights on the importance of understanding the plight of persons suffering with a mental illness.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004. I stopped taking my prescribed medication and went through a psychotic episode that lasted more than a year. Unfortunately, while not in my right mind, I committed crimes that were highly publicized both in the newspapers and on TV. I spent time in jail and was committed to Central State Mental Hospital for a total of 21 months.
Thankfully the courts found me not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). I was granted a "Conditional Release" and began receiving services at Colonial Behavioral Health (CBH) who helped provide me with housing. As part of my treatment with CBH, I attended People’s Place for approximately 16 months. People’s Place is a recovery-based clubhouse day support program where adults with mental illness go for peer support and to learn life skills.
After two years of Conditional Release the Courts granted me an unconditional release on December 10, 2009. Since then I have been using my story to help others better understand mental illness.
Through my experience, I learned that many people I had known for years were aware of my illness and crimes but didn’t seem to know what to say when we ran into each other. Because of my previous professional work as a comedian, I found that people felt more comfortable with me and my mental health disorder if I used humor to break the ice.
So I joined the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) after being released from the hospital and began facilitating consumer support groups. I’ve learned that humor is well received with all of my friends at NAMI. I believe everyone likes to laugh and laughter helps some people feel more comfortable communicating with someone who has a mental illness. It’s my experience that humor is one thing that breaks through the “uncomfortable barrier.”
Another way I have used humor is when I speak with first responders, mostly law enforcement personnel, in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainings. I have helped with dozens of CIT trainings throughout Virginia since 2008. Having worked the streets as a firefighter/paramedic for more than 20 years, I relate to some of the challenges that first responders encounter on a daily basis. I have found that humor helps me to educate people on topics like hearing voices, visual hallucinations and aggressive behavior all of which I experienced during my psychotic episode. I often tell people it’s much more fun to laugh rather than to cry. I believe laughter has a therapeutic effect similar to music.
While at Central State Hospital I noticed that many people who were having symptoms of mental illness like pacing or rocking back and forth and talking to themselves would benefit from listening to music on a walkman radio. I witnessed many of these symptoms get better or in some cases cease while they were listening to music. I like listening to K-LOVE Radio www.klove.com. Their slogan is “Positive, Encouraging K-LOVE” I also like the fact that they have Pastors on staff available 24 hours a day to provide prayer for listeners at no cost. Their music always seems to put a smile on my face.
I have continued to work with NAMI advocating for people who live with mental illness in the community and at the legislative level through the General Assembly. My story helps to educate people about challenges that people who suffer with mental illness face in and out of the correctional system. The Bible says, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (John 13:34). My goal is help as many people as I can through as many avenues as I can. I plan to continue telling my story to help CIT, NAMI and the people I visit at Eastern State Hospital.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
WHAT IS A 12-STEP PROGRAM?
A set of guiding principles (accepted by members as 'spiritual principles,' based on the approved literature) outlining a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion, or other behavioral problems.  The 12-steps were originally adapted from a Christian Evangelical group called the Oxford Group—and first published in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as The Big Book) in 1939.
Psychiatrist and author, M. Scott Peck, M.D. published the following regarding the founders of the 12-step program:
Thus I believe the greatest positive event of the twentieth century occurred in Akron, Ohio, on June 10, 1935, when Bill W. and Dr. Bob convened the first AA meeting. It was not only the beginning of the self-help movement and the beginning of the integration of science and spirituality at a grass-roots level, but also the beginning of the community movement.
(1993 book, Further Along the Road Less Travelled, p. 150)
Robert Burney, M.A. is an author, counselor, and a pioneer in the field of inner child healing and codependency recovery. He stated in his book, Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls:
I believe that in a hundred years historians will look back and pinpoint this milestone as the single most important event in the twentieth century. This milestone was the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio, in June of 1935.
Besides the invaluable gift of sobriety that AA has given to millions of Alcoholics, it also started a revolution in Spiritual consciousness. . . .
The spread of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the other Anonymous programs which sprang out of AA, is the widest and most effective dissemination of this radical revolutionary concept that has ever occurred in Western Civilization.
As noted, the Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) 12-steps became the foundation of all other 12-step programs.
WHAT ARE THE TWELVE-STEPS?
These are the original Twelve Steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous: 
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Where other twelve-step groups have adapted these steps to address their “powerlessness”, the main altered wordings are in Step 1 and Step12, see List of Twelve Step alternate wordings.
The American Psychological Association summarized twelve-step programs as the process that involves the following:
• admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion;
• recognizing a Higher Power that can give strength;
• examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member);
• making amends for these errors;
• learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior; and
• helping others who suffer from the same addictions or compulsions.
HOW HAVE THE 12-STEPS “SURVIVED” FOR SO LONG?
Twelve-step programs are always accompanied with The Twelve Traditions (which were also developed by AA in 1946). The traditions were adopted in order to help resolve conflicts in the areas of publicity, religion and finances—for structural governance. Click here for the Traditions Checklist.
A key factor for the 12-step program’s effectiveness in part is due to the members being encouraged to practice the spiritual principle of anonymity and confidentiality. Other shared factors to the success of a 12-step group includes that the program is voluntary; there are no dues or fees; it is self-supporting through member’s contributions; it is not associated with any denomination, politics, organization or institution; it does not endorse nor oppose any causes; and the primary purpose is to overcome the powerless behavior and to help others to achieve the shared goal.
As a result of AA staying true to its purpose and principles, it is estimated that there are approximately 114,000 AA groups and over 2,000,000 members in approximately 170 countries. -– At-A-Glance, 2012 (AA General Service Conference-approved literature).
Also, as a result of AA’s 12-steps, there are over 50 “other” Twelve-Step Groups working on a course of action for whatever the participants need to recover from. See listing in 12Step.com website.
HOW TO FIND A MEETING IN YOUR AREA?
Most Frequently Used:
Al-Anon/Alateen – Strength and hope for friends and families of problem drinkers. Click on the blue words to enter the official website.
Alcoholics Anonymous – Official website for Alcoholic Anonymous (AA). The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. AA’s primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. Go to the How To Find A.A. Meetings section of the site and follow the instructions.
Narcotics Anonymous – Official website for Narcotics Anonymous (NA). NA focuses on the disease of addiction rather than any particular drug. Go to the Find A Meeting section of the site and follow the instructions.
Many members of 12-step recovery programs see the “guiding principles” as more than just 12-steps towards stopping an unwanted behavior, but they become one’s guidance towards a new way of living.
The twelve-step meetings (affectionately know as “the rooms”) can be very cathartic and for some, “life changing”. Please feel safe in knowing that there are many reasons to admire and respect 12-step programs. Should you ever “desire” to attend, DON’T HESITATE!
1. VandenBos, Gary R. (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology (1st ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 1591473802. OCLC 65407150.
2. Alcoholics Anonymous (June 2001). "Chapter 5: How It Works" (PDF). Alcoholics Anonymous (4th ed.). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. ISBN 1893007162. OCLC 32014950. www.aa.org/bigbookonline/en_bigbook_chapt5.pdf.
Janis Omide is a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor with a MS Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling for Addictions from the Medical College of Virginia/VCU. Currently, Janis is a Therapist for CBH assigned to provide SA counseling to VPRJ’s Therapeutic Community. She has over fifteen years of experience in the profession of providing treatment to people with addictions of varied ages, genders & cultures: Substance Abuse (SA) Counselor in out-patient and residential; Vocational Rehabilitation SA Counselor; SA Specialist for ex-offenders/probationers & DUIs; SA Therapist for Doctors/Nurses; and including counseling people with co-existing psychiatric and substance use disorders.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Mother and blogger, A Diary of a Mom
The following is a letter that I wrote to my daughter, Brooke, on her eighth birthday. I suppose I should tell you that Brooke is autistic, a word that doesn't so much as begin to describe her, but which, I guess, is contextually necessary.
She's nine now, and still not in a place where the words would likely make much sense to her. I don't doubt that someday she will be, but that day is not today. And that's OK.
For now, it's not the words that matter; it's the love.
To Brooke, on her eighth birthday, and every day thereafter...
Eight. My God, how did we get to eight?
It's been a ride, hasn't it, baby girl? Yes, I'm still going to call you baby girl. Sorry, honey, but eight ain't gonna change that. Heck, 80 won't change that either. You will ALWAYS be your mama's baby girl.
As I snuck into your room this morning, you watched me, didn't you? Those big, wide eyes followed me as I brought the balloons in one by one. I tried so hard to be quiet, but we both know your mama would never make it as a cat burglar. So with each trip in and out of your room, you watched, quiet as a church mouse, but taking it all in. There's never a moment that you're not watching, listening, absorbing and processing is there? 'A mind like a steel trap,' as your papa would say. It's all in there, isn't it, baby? Eight years of life experiences catalogued and stored away for later use in that incredible little head of yours. I am in awe of your capacity to remember it all.
Eight years, my God. A lifetime. I'll never forget that morning, eight years ago today. Please, give me my baby. Please. I just need to hold my baby. Your temperature was too low, they said. I'm sorry, Jess, they just need to keep her a little while longer. It was so hard for Daddy to have to keep telling me that it just wasn't time yet. And I just couldn't hear it. NO, I NEED my girl. And she needs me. I felt so empty, so wrong without you. Nine months we'd shared this body. Nine tumultuous months. I did my best, baby, but pregnancy was never my strong suit. And then it was time. Time for me to hold you. And I couldn't.
And finally, finally they brought you to me. Finally I held you to my chest and laid you down exactly where you belonged. And I held on for dear life to my beautiful, perfect baby. Ten long fingers and ten tiny toes and those eyes -- those giant saucers taking it all in, even then. I wonder if somewhere you've catalogued even those days.
People came and went. The nurses were determined to bring you to the nursery, but Mama wouldn't have it. She'll sleep with me. They worried that I wasn't sleeping, taking time to heal. They were right, but it didn't matter. Those nights, those four first nights of your life were OUR time. No one there but us. I wouldn't give those nights up for anything. Sleep is overrated.
God, baby, even then -- even before I had any idea who you would be -- I loved you so much it filled the room, raced down the hall and flew out the doors of the hospital - a love too big to be contained by bricks and mortar. It spiraled straight up to God that day and came back on the wings of angels. There is nothing on this earth bigger or more perfect than my love for you, Brooke. Nothing.
Over time, you changed everything. You sure as heck changed me. Thank God. You changed the mother I thought I would be into the one that I needed to be. And it wasn't just me. You changed your daddy and your sister and everyone who came into our world. You laughed at what we thought mattered and showed us what really did. You stretched us past our insecurities and doubts to a place painted with a technicolor brush. With the vivid colors of a life lived awake, alive, aware. You pulled us into hearing beyond the background noise, tuning in to a totally different frequency where there IS no background. Where every utterance is crisp and clear and has equal meaning and weight and beauty.
You made us cry with your anguish yes, but oh, my sweet girl, how you've made us laugh! And God when you laugh -- well I would swear the heavens break open and flood the earth with joy when you let it loose. How did I describe it once? The laugh that starts with her shoulders and takes her whole body along for the ride. The laugh that sets her eyes on fire and whose sheer energy could launch a rocket ship and send it into orbit. The contagious laugh that leaves an electric happiness in its wake. There is no greater gift than that laugh.
I know you won't believe me when I tell you how much you affect everyone around you. How you bring us all -- every single human being who is blessed to walk with you, even for a short while -- to a higher place. Or how you've started a veritable revolution of compassion and tolerance and community. Or how you've cracked open even the hardest hearts and made them FEEL something.
I know, I'm your mom. It's my job to say that, right? I can see you reading this some day (still, I pray for that day) and rolling your eyes. Fine, you don't believe me? Fair enough. How about this?
I can't really explain what has happened between Brooke and me these last six weeks but it has been life changing for me. Never before has a child (other than my own) crept into my heart as quickly and stealthily as your daughter has. I have watched in complete amazement as she works and works to connect with the world.
Beyond the repetition and the grasping attempts to pull from her limited repertoire of conversation starters, there is this aura that is solely Brooke's. It is an invisible exhale, a breath of color, warmth, love, tenderness and song. And then, in the midst of the 'oh yeahs' and missed nuances, the sensory overloads -- there are these scintillating seconds when with just the slightest eye contact and a well-rehearsed smile, a tuck of the hair behind the ears, she pours her love around you the best she knows how. It makes my eyes well, my hair stand and my heart sing ...
...I can't explain it really. I just know she has touched my soul... She is so brave and has kept me honest. I need to come out of my comfort zone more often with even the tiniest amount of the courage that she shows each day.
Do you believe me now? Cause those word aren't mine, baby. They came from Miss T who had known you for SIX WEEKS when she wrote them. I don't make this stuff up, Brooke. You CHANGE people. One by one, you crawl into their souls and you CHANGE them. I don't know how you do it. I'm betting that you don't either. It's simply who you are.
I know I tell you all the time, baby girl, but please don't let the repetition dull the enormity of the feeling behind the words. I am so proud of you. I know it hasn't been an easy road these last eight years. In many ways it will get harder still. But you will rise to every challenge with grace and humor and that indefatigable spirit that ensures that all is possible. And you will have your mama by your side every step of the way -- crying, cheering, rejoicing. And once in a while screaming, "That's my girl! The one right there on the left. The one changing the world!"
Happy eighth birthday, my sweet Brooke.
Your mama loves you more than anything.
Jess can typically be found at Diary of a Mom where she writes about life with her two daughters, nine year-old Brooke and eleven year-old Katie, and her husband, Luau. This post was originally published there in March of 2011 and reposted on Huff Post Parents on August 10, 2012. This post is reprinted here with permission from the author.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
As an Employee Assistance Program Specialist who routinely sees clients for work-related stress issues, I often hear the expression, “My work place has become toxic.” What most people mean by this is that there is a person, or persons, who are filling the workplace with negative attitudes and behaviors, and that this experience is contributing to low morale, high stress, and the feeling that one needs to go through a decontamination process before returning home.
Who are these people and, more importantly, is there something we can do to protect ourselves from the hazardous waste they leave in their wake? The short answer is “yes” there is something we can do. The longer answer is that doing something about this requires that we take special precautions, stay alert and, if necessary, have an evacuation plan at the ready.
According to Wikipedia a toxic employee is “a worker who is motivated by personal gain (power, money, or special status), uses unethical, mean-spirited and sometimes illegal means to manipulate and annoy those around them; and whose motives are to maintain or increase power, money or special status or divert attention away from their performance shortfalls and misdeeds.”
Let’s start by being honest and admitting that all of us are “motivated by personal gain.” The difference between looking out for oneself and the hazardous worker is in the techniques they use to obtain these personal gains and that their gains come at the great expense of others. While it’s certainly possible that there are some people who suffer from chronic pain in the butt syndrome, and are essentially hard-wired to behave the way they do, I think that most of these folks are made, not born, this way. (Admittedly, this is the eternal hopeful therapist in me saying this).
Most of these people probably enjoyed their job at some point. The move toward toxicity usually begins harmlessly. A joke here, a sarcastic remark there, an explicit message left on the company bathroom wall. In time, however, the attitude becomes a primary defense mechanism for a person who has lost the ability and/or willingness to try to change. When they become the dominant force in a company, they can squeeze the life energy out of its workers. These are not necessarily evil people, they have just learned that expecting the worst makes life at work more understandable and predictable, and it requires less energy. It is far easier for them to point fingers instead of lifting them to help others. It requires much less energy to ridicule than to reason and in the end saying, "I told you so," means never having to take responsibility.
When it comes to working with these people we can follow the advice of those who work around actual toxic material and Verify, Contain, and Remove. Here are some tips for putting this into practice:
1. Verify: Make sure that you are actually dealing with someone who has become toxic. Simply having a “bad day at the office” and making a negative comment or two about the boss does not mean that someone is a danger to the work environment. Look for a consistent pattern of negative behavior and talk. See if others around you feel the same about the person, or people involved. Feeling like your personal boundaries have been violated whenever you interact with someone is another good indicator of toxicity, as is the feeling that the person has an insatiable need for attention.
2. Contain: Maintain a healthy perimeter between yourself and the toxic person. If you must interact, stick to facts, and avoid being drawn into personal conversations. Withdraw attention from their antics, rants, and ramblings and never answer their question of “Want to know what I think?” with anything other than, “Look at the time, I have a meeting to get to.”
3. Remove: Ultimately, only those in charge can take steps to remove a toxic person from the workplace*. However, those impacted by the daily poison can assist in this process by speaking up for themselves and their work environment. Become an activist at work and avoid the passive response of coming to work in the emotional equivalent of a hazmat suit. Create a workplace Environmental Protection Agency and go out of your way to be positive, supportive and helpful. It is often the case that when other workers refuse to play in the toxic person’s reindeer games, the toxic person loses interest and seeks unhealthier pastures.
In the end, toxic workers are simply dysfunctional people who bring their negative coping skills to the work setting. Identifying that these skills are simply attempts on their part to have some sense of control over their lives allows us to stop taking their actions personally and practice keeping control over our attitudes and responses. In this way, even if the toxic person never cleans up their act, our days are not contaminated with harmful negative energy that we end up unintentionally bringing home with us.
* It is sometimes the case where the toxic person is the person in charge. This creates obvious extra challenges and some careful planning in order to protect both one’s sanity and employment. First and foremost, document your experiences, but avoid diagnosing and getting over-emotional (save that for your therapy journal). Stick to facts and include names of anyone else who might have witnessed the boss’s antics. If you are not able to take a break from work, i.e. vacation, sick leave, or mental health days, make an extra effort to stay on-task and perform to the best of your abilities. In the face of any dysfunctional behavior by others the old 12-Step axiom of “Living well is the best revenge” can serve to extend one’s career. Finally, be ready to go above your boss or utilize your evacuation plan. Leaving a toxic boss is not an act of defeat, it’s a courageous act of no longer participating in an abusive relationship. Move out of victim mode and into survivorship. There’s a good chance that you will not be alone and can start a support group for other survivors.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Child abuse costs the US $258 million per day based on a study from Prevent Child Abuse America. In Virginia, for fiscal year 2010-2011, 48,915 children were named as possible victims; there were 6,234 founded abuse cases; and 34,185 children were involved in family assessments. In 2011, York County and Poquoson (based on statistics from Prevent Child Abuse America), identified 642 children named as possible victims. Out of this number, there were 71 child abuse/neglect investigations, 267 family assessments and 34 founded abuse cases.
Dr. Jeff Linkenbach notes that it is not enough to simply change behaviors that already exist. We must work on prevention to stop maltreatment of children before it begins. Prevention is essential to stop the cycle of abuse. Prevention demonstrates that no single solution exists to reduce child abuse and neglect; instead a comprehensive approach of strategies must be in place to create safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments. Strategies must include policies, enforcement, media communications, intervention, education, and skill training. The “one thing” we should focus on to reduce child abuse is communicating cultural norms that make the well being of children the benchmark for the health of our society.
Many people might ask, how can child abuse and neglect be prevented? Know the warning signs! Parents under chronic stress, children exhibiting negative and anxious behaviors, and signs of physical abuse (unusual shaped bruises or cuts in atypical places) can be signs of child abuse and/or neglect. Encourage families who are under stress to call their local department of social services or 1-800-CHILDREN. If you suspect child abuse or neglect, call the Child Protective Services Hotline at 1-800-552-7096.
Prevent Child Abuse America and local chapters have introduced the pinwheel as the new symbol for child abuse and prevention nationwide. The Pinwheel represents efforts to change the way people think about prevention, focusing on community activities and public policies that prioritize prevention from the start to make sure child abuse never occurs. Nearly 900,000 pinwheels have been displayed since 2008. Look for pinwheels throughout York County and Poquoson during the month of April!
Prevent Child Abuse America is a national organization that provides awareness and education of child abuse. This organization includes several state and local chapters; Prevent Child Abuse Virginia Chapter and Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads Chapter. York County and the City of Poquoson fall under the Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads Chapter. The local chapter is called the York-Poquoson Child Advocacy Team (CAT). CAT provides grants to local community partners working to prevent or educate people about child abuse. CAT also provides training opportunities to community partners throughout the year. CAT's main fundraising event of the year is a Celebrity Luncheon and silent auction. If you would like more information regarding CAT or would like to be involved, please contact Elizabeth Overall at 890-3954 or Courtney Dowell 253 – 4074.
Elizabeth Overall is a social worker working with children in the foster care system in Virginia. Elizabeth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Work from Christopher Newport University and is currently pursuing her Master of Social Work degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. Elizabeth is employed full time at York-Poquoson Department of Social Services and has over four years of experience working with children in the child welfare system. Elizabeth volunteers her time to serve as the co-chair person for the York-Poquoson Child Advocacy team.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
As coordinator of the Campaign for Children’s Mental Health at Voices for Virginia’s Children, I regularly talk to parents who are struggling to help their children with mental health issues. They are often extremely frustrated because they cannot find the treatment that their child needs in their community, or there is a long wait list for services, or their insurance won’t pay for the type of treatment their child needs.
Compounding these frustrations, many parents with whom I talk feel isolated. They don’t know other families struggling with children’s mental health disorders. They may not be receiving support from friends or their child’s school. Their families’ lives have been thrown into disarray – emotionally, logistically, and financially – as they try to find help for the child who needs it while continuing to work and take care of other children.
One question I often hear is, “Why it is so difficult to get help when your child has a mental health problem as opposed to a physical health problem?” The answer is complex, and the Campaign for Children’s Mental Health is working to improve access to services through a variety of strategies.
The key to improving access to children’s mental health services – through every strategy we are using – is mobilizing the families who have experience with this issue. And there are more of you than you might think. Did you know that 1 in 5 children experience a mental health disorder? Chances are you DO know other families who have a child with ADHD, depression, anxiety, or another mental health challenge, but because of the stigma that still exists, you and they have never made the connection.
Part of what we do at the Campaign is help families realize the difference they can make by speaking out, and we equip them to do so. For example:
• Telling your stories can reduce the stigma of mental illness; together, we can help reduce the isolation so many families and children feel, and make it okay to ask for help.
• Walking advocates through the barriers your family has encountered as you’ve tried to seek help enables us to identify the policies that need to be changed or the types of services that need to be created.
• Sharing your experience with legislators can help them realize the real-life implications of the funding decisions they make.
One parent we’ve worked with at the Campaign is Shannon Haworth. After talking to lawmakers in Washington, DC, she was asked in a radio interview last summer what it feels like to advocate. She replied, “You feel like you’re just a parent in a sea of other parents who need help, and so when you’re able to talk to people and tell your specific story and have people listen, it empowers you.”
I look forward to speaking at the Behavioral Health Symposium on April 18 to explore together ways we can empower more families to improve our children’s mental health.
Margaret Nimmo Crowe is Policy Director at Voices for Virginia’s Children (www.vakids.org), a statewide, privately funded, non-partisan policy research and advocacy organization that champions policies and practices that improve the lives of children. She coordinates the Campaign for Children’s Mental Health (www.1in5kids.org), a broad-based advocacy initiative led by Voices and supported by 60 organizations to increase access to children’s mental health services the Commonwealth. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
When does it happen? That precise moment when you realize that despite your best-laid plans, you’ve completely and utterly lost control of your life? It’s a question we often pose to each other, though in a more direct and simple way.
“Hey Pat, when did our lives take that left turn into Crazyville?”
“Oh that’s easy, Gene; when we had kids.”
It’s not like we made plans to go there, or ever, in our wildest dreams, imagined our lives would head in that direction. Like a lot of prospective parents, we had plans – dreams and expectations of our own future children’s lives. We wanted them to enjoy the same happy, relatively normal childhoods we had. For us, being challenged meant finding a way not to upset our loving, generous, and sometimes forceful Italian grandmother.
“Gina, come here and finish your dink.”
“But Nana, I don’t like highballs. And besides, I’m only six.”
Yes, easy, carefree childhoods. That was the plan, until the painful moment when we realized our children’s lives – and the lives of our entire family – would never be “normal.”
Gina’s “Chilling Dose” of Reality
Some things just aren’t funny. The snow flak essay Gina uncovered in her then ten-year-old daughter Katie’s backpack sure wasn’t. Gina had always thought of snowflakes as light and airy. But in this essay? It was dark and heavy.
As she read it, Gina instantly felt the weight of the dark words before her:
If I were a snowflake falling, I would be sneaky and clever, too, and when I fall I would strike… After I am going to my school, it is time for revenge. As I’m walking down, I ran into the principal and know her over. Oh now, I ran over the principal. Oh well, I’ll just leave her there. The students are working, not for long. Here I go. Fear me, ha ha ha. I charge right into the school and damage everything before my school blows up 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Bye, school. I won’t be missing it. I flow away fast. Now what should I do next now that my school is gone? World and I have a present for all, a bomb. And also one last thing: beware of me.
Oh, it’s not like Gina wasn’t warned about it. Earlier in the day, while she was working comfortably in her warm home office, she’d received a call from Katie’s fifth-grade teacher. When the phone rang and the name of her school district flashed on the caller ID, Gina knew something was wrong. The letters may have appeared small, but to Gina, they lit up like a nuclear meltdown warning: “Danger, Will Robinson!”
Almost instantly, Gina felt a familiar burn in her stomach. “Oh no! Not again!” she cried out, startling her little dog Max, who was napping by her feet.
Gina had not idea what the call was about this time, though she knew it wouldn’t be good. They never were.
“Mrs. Gallagher, it’s the school psychologist. Katie had another meltdown today.”
“Mrs. Gallagher, it’s the school nurse. Katie’s here with another stomach ache.”
“Mrs. Gallagher, Katie’s hand flapping has really increased. The other kids have noticed.”
Over the years, the calls from the school had been relatively sparse, maybe once or tow every few months. But in the first few months of Katie’s fifth-grade year, Gina had received more calls than the Jerry Lewis telethon.
With a disorder that affected her ability to relate to other children, Katie was different from other kids, and the struggles of dealing with her differences were escalating along with the school calls.
Remember to breathe, Gina reminded herself as she shakily putdown her cocoa cup, picked up the phone, and braced herself for the bad news that was sure to come.
“H-H-Hello?” she stuttered.
“Mrs. Gallagher, this is Katie’s’ teacher.”
“Yes, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Well, something very upsetting happened at school today.”
“What was it?” Gina asked, impatiently.
“Well, for the holiday break, I asked the class to write a snow flake essay…”
It might have been stress or her warped sense of humor, but Gina started to giggle.
“Mrs. Gallagher, are you there?”
“Yes, it’s just that I fail to see how anything upsetting can come out of a snow flake essay.”
“Well, this is very serious.”
“Go ahead, I’m listing,” Gina responded, fighting back laughter.
“Mrs. Gallagher, in her snow flake essay, your daughter threatened to blow up the school.”
Gina couldn’t help but laugh.
“We have to take these things very seriously, Mrs. Gallagher.”
“I’m sure you do, but you can’t honestly think Katie would hurt anybody? She wouldn’t hurt a fly. She doesn’t even like eating animal crackers.”
“Believe me, Mrs. Gallagher; I’m not afraid of Katie.”
“You shouldn’t be. I’m not sure she knows hot to build a bomb. She barely had her multiplication tables down,” Gina responded, tipping back in her chair and twisting the phone cord around her fingers.
“I’ve made the principal aware and she doesn’t think we need to alert the police.”
“The police? You thought about calling the police?” Gina asked, straightening up in her chair, as she pictured her sweet ten-year-old in prison stripes.
“Yes. As I said, we have to take these things seriously.”
“Can I see a copy of this essay?” Gina blurted out.
“Of course, I’ll send it home in Katie’s backpack.”
By the end of the school day, Gina was frantically pacing at the bus stop, waiting for her “Little Unabomber” to come home.
“Hi, Mom,” Katie said, climbing off the buss in her usual awkward way if two feet on a step.
“Give me your backpack! I need your backpack!” Gina demanded.
“Sheesh. Here!” Katie replies, slowly shrugging it off her shoulders.
“Hurry up! Hurry up!” Gina shouted, wiggling her anxious fingers in Katie’s face.
Holding the backpack in front of her as though it were a dirty diaper, Gina raced into the house and took the backpack into her office, where she opened it, extracted the weighty essay inside, and started to read. A part of Gina had thought it was all a mistake or a joke, but when she saw her daughter’s name above the dark words on the page, she was smacked with the reality of it.
Oh my God! I have no idea what’s going on in my daughter’s head. Is she suicidal? Does she want to hurt others?
Distraught that she could be having these thoughts about a child she’s raised, Gina immediately confronted Katie.
“Katherine, did you write this?” she asked, staring down at her daughter and using Katie’s normal “you’re in trouble” name.
“Yes, Mom. Are you mad? Am I in trouble? Do I have to do to the principal?” Katie asked, tears falling down her face, leaving red blotches on her sensitive cheeks.
“Katie, why did you do this? Do you know how serious this is?” Gina cried.
“Mom, I didn’t mean it. I did it to be funny. The boys next to me were talking about hurting the principal and I just wanted to make them laugh.”
“Why? Why would you do that?”
“I wanted to fit in, Mom. I’m different! I hate being different. All I want to do is fit in! The kids all think I’m weird! I can’t take it anymore Mom!” Katie said, bursting into full sobs.
“Oh honey, don’t say that! You’re not different! You’re just like everybody else,” Gina said, but deep in her heart, she knew her daughter was right. And it hurt her like no other hurt she had ever experienced.
Gina hugged Katie and walked her to her room. “Honey, Mommy had some things she needs to take care of. We’ll talk about this later.” Then she went into her room, closed the door, and cried like a baby, silently asking God, Why did you give my daughter this disability? Why? Why does she have to suffer? And why me? I’m not strong enough for this! I can’t handle this!
For the first time in her thirty-eight years of living, Gina Gallagher felt like she wanted to die. She couldn’t bear the thought of being there to watch her daughter struggle for the rest of her life.
Patty’s “Wild Ride” into Reality
Our mother always said, “There must be nothing worse than losing a child.” Patty never understood what she meant until she had a child of her own, and thought she might lose her, though in a different way.
“Don’t leave me! Come back! Mom, help me!”
“Keep walking, Michael! Don’t look back!” Patty commanded her husband, tightly squeezing his hand as they walked together down the cold, sterile hallway.
She paused as Michael stopped and removed his steamed-up glasses to wipe away the tears flowing beneath them.
What are we doing here? Patty wondered to herself. This can’t be happening!
She had, after all, led a happy, normal childhood. The only hospital in her childhood was General Hospital. Now here she was leaving her eleven-year-old daughter, Jennifer, all by herself in a real hospital. A mental hospital.
At that moment, Patty wasn’t sure if she had lost her daughter forever. But the truth was, she had been losing Jennifer or for a few years.
She actually knew something was terribly wrong when Jennifer was just eight. Patty and her family were on a dream family vacation in Disney World – “the Happiest Place on Earth.”
The evening parade had just ended. Mickey, Minnie, and the gang had floated away into the sunset, leaving Patty’s family and her favorite characters – our mom, dad, brother and Gina – behind. Patty couldn’t help but smile as she looked up and down the colorful street sat all the families grinning from mouse ear to mouse ear.
That is, until she was interrupted by an all-too-familiar and painful screech.
“Why do they have to lave? Why” shouted eight-year-old Jennifer, who was sitting on the curb, hugging the Minnie Mouse on her sweatshirt and flailing her legs.
“Oh that’s just great! It’s even happening here!” muttered Patty, helplessly realizing that the Magic Kingdom, the place where “dreams come true,” was about to turn into her personal nightmare.
It really shouldn’t have surprised her. Over the past few months, Jennifer’s moods had become increasingly unpredictable. She would cry for hours and become violent about the smallest things.
“Why? Why can’t I wear my jelly shoes?”
“Because, Jenns, it’s thirty degrees outside and snowing.”
“WAAAAAHHHH? I hate you!”
She was also becoming alarmingly destructive.
“Jennifer Marie! What are you doing with my scissors and the family picture?”
“I’m cutting myself out. I don’t want to be part of this family anymore.”
And during the dream vacation to Disney – the one Jennifer had been excited about for months (“How many days til we go, Mom? Tell me! Tell me!) – her moods were just as unpredictable. Somehow Patty had actually though Jenn’s problems would disappear, but instead of seeing Snow White, Patty saw her daughter magically transform into Grump, Saddy, and Angry.
“Why do I have to go in the haunted mansion? I already have a witch for a mother.”
The sadness was the hardest part. Jenn seemed to have no interest in the places the family went or the people who accompanied us.
“No, Mommy. I don’t feel like riding Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with Nana!”
“How about going for a swim? Your cousins are all in the pool”
“No, thank you. I want to stay here in the hotel room.”
As Patty dragged a screaming Jennifer (“I hate you! I’m going to kill myself if we leave!”) through the massive crowds toward the exit to the park, she glances over at her four-year-old son, Mikey, who was resting comfortably in his stroller. Why can’t Jennifer be more like him? He’s so easy! Patty thought, while Jennifer hissed, “I hate you for making me leave!” and hurled a stuffed Minnie Mouse at Patty’s head.
“Jenns, honey, its okay,” said Patty’s husband, Michael, bending down to pat her back.
“Mickey and Minnie just have to go home now, and so do we. We’ll come back. I promise.”
“It’s all her fault!” Jennifer screeched, pointing at Patty.
“You stupid jerk, Jennifer!” shouted her “sympathetic” big sister, Jules. “Don’t talk to Mom like that!”
“Jules! Please shut up!” a stressed-out Patty yelled. People in mouse ears stopped to give her looks of disgust. Oh, she knew what they were thinking – Hey bad mother, why don’t you just smack your spoiled rotten kid? Before she had Jennifer she would have thought the same thing. Now she knew not to judge. She also knew she had to get Jennifer out of there – fast. The last thing the Disney PR people needed on their happy streets was a real-life Cruella De Vil screaming at her kid.
Dragging Jennifer ahead with new found purpose (I’ve got to get this bratty kid the hell out of here!), Patty tried to calm herself. She began humming her favorite Disney songs to maintain her sanity.
Both a little sacred… Beauty and the Beast.
Twenty minutes later, when Jennifer had screamed herself into exhaustion, Patty’s family exited the tram to the parking lot and walked toward their rental car. When they got to the car, an exhausted patty climbed into the passenger seat and told her husband, “Michael, let’s get the hell out of here. I can’t stand to spend one more minute in the Happiest Place on Earth.”
Our Neighbors in Crazyville
At the time we experienced these life-alerting incidents, we thought we were alone and no one understood our struggles. Since then, we have met hundreds of parents who have experience their own painful realizations about their children. Parents who have had to commit their children to see them locked up in prison. What’s amazed us is how these people have managed not only to survive these experiences, but also to learn from them. We discovered this at our first speaking engagement when a lovely woman announces, “Yeah, my bipolar son is in jail again.”
“That’s terrible. We’re so sorry,” we said.
“I’m not. At least I know he’s safe, off drugs, and getting three squares a day.”
We’re pretty sure her parental fantasies never involved her son in an orange jumpsuit, but somehow she’s managed to focus on the positive and make the most of her time in Crazyville.
Gina (Terrasi) Gallagher - The Sister Afraid of Failure - is a Hatch award-winning freelance copywriter who resides in Marlborough, Massachusetts, with her husband Michael, daughters, Katie and Emily, and countless dust bunnies.
Patricia (Terrasi) Konjoian- The Sister Afraid of Success – is an award-winning videographer who lives in Andover, Massachusetts with her husband, Michael, two daughters, Jennifer and Julianne, and son Michael. She has been on a diet since 1978.