Monday, December 21, 2015

Day of Reckoning

Does the Tooth Fairy bring change to grownups?
All I Want for Christmas Is a New Front Tooth

On the first day of Christmas vacation 2015, I shivered in a dentist’s chair, trying not to throw up. The day I had been dreading for more than 23 years—the day my right front tooth had to go—was finally here. And I was foolish or hubristic enough to think I could handle the extraction without nitrous oxide.

I listened to the swishes and whirrs and slurps, trying to ignore the dentist as he wrenched and tugged and clawed at my tooth. My mind wandered back to the last day of class my sophomore year in college, when I lost the tooth the first time. It was late afternoon, and the sun was setting in flaming pinks and golds over the mountains as I returned exhausted but happy from an 18-mile spring bike ride up Provo Canyon. As I leaned in to hop onto the curb in front of Stan’s Drive-In on Ninth Street, I realized too late I was going too fast.

I wish I could say I don’t remember the next few seconds, but I do. As my front tire clipped the curb, I soared over the handlebars, connecting jaw-first with the gravelly pavement. When I came to rest, I lay still for a moment, noting strange and somehow significant patterns in the pink tinged cotton ball clouds above my head. Then I tasted salt. My hand, when it touched my lip, dripped bright blood.

“Are you okay? Are you okay?” A crowd had gathered around me. One of Stan’s employees handed me a towel as I gingerly tried to sit up. At least my neck wasn’t broken. But I couldn’t talk. A young man helped me into his car and offered to take me to the school clinic. When we got there, the intake nurse took one look at me and said, “Take her to the hospital. Now.”

The hospital was a blur. The triage nurse kept calling me the wrong name, and I couldn’t correct her. My roommates came as soon as they learned the news—a police officer had been called to the scene and took my bike home. My fiancée showed up a few hours later. The ER doctor ordered x-rays and after studying them, told me it could have been much worse; instead of a snapped spine or a traumatic brain injury, I had a broken jaw, a broken chin, and several loose or broken teeth, one of which was lodged in my lower lip. He told me I’d need surgery to set things right, and he suggested that I have general anesthesia, though that would mean taking incompletes in my classes, since I wouldn’t be able to take final exams the next day.

“Let’s do local anesthetic,” I wrote on a notepad. I’d worked too hard that semester. Five hours later, I regretted my decision, but I was stable—my lip and chin sewn shut, and my jaw wired together. I don’t remember my finals, though apparently I passed them.

A week later, I was home recuperating—without a ring on my finger. Though my heart hurt all summer long, my jaw healed right on schedule. I spent that summer in the dentist’s chair, having some of the strangest one-sided conversations of my life as he applied crowns and esthetics to my shattered mouth. My dentist then was an evangelical Christian, and since he knew I was majoring in Greek, he would ask me all kinds of questions about New Testament things like kaire (loosely, “grace”) and hamartia (loosely, “sin”), to which I would reply, my mouth stuffed with wads of cotton, “Hmahnt mah hmmnn.”

The dentist wasn’t able to save my soul, but with a root canal and some fancy polymer tricks, he did save that front tooth. “You’ll probably get ten years out of this, tops,” he told me. “It was in pretty bad shape.”

Twenty-three years later, I feel like I definitely got my money’s worth out of that tooth. I wish I could say the same for my first marriage.

When my father would retell the story of my bike accident, he would say, “It was a miracle. God caused the pavement to rise up and save you from getting married to the wrong man.”

I don’t know if it was God who caused my bike accident. But I do know my Dad was right—I was good at a lot of things, but choosing to be with men who treated me well was not one of them.

Dad died after a long struggle with cancer a few months after I started graduate school. Before he died, my father did meet J, the man who would become my first husband, at our college graduation, and later, I would imbue my memory of their brief conversation with special significance, just as my father had seen my bike accident a few years earlier as fortuitous.

I don’t blame myself or him. We are all creatures of story, looking for signs in accidents.

Here was the incontrovertible sign (from God, I thought then) that J was meant to be with me: We were missing the same front right tooth. Or rather, he was missing his front right tooth—and mine was barely hanging on, by the grace of God and my dentist.

The missing tooth was one of the first things I knew about the man who would become the father of my children. J was sitting in front of me in a Latin class senior year, and when he turned around to give me one of his brilliant smiles, there was a dark, shocking gap where his tooth should have been. I gasped, then giggled, catching an uncharacteristic glare from our professor, an elderly Mormon classicist who called us his “Greeklings” and once told a colleague, in my presence, that I was the perfect woman because I baked the most delicious sugar cookies. And also (an afterthought), I could read Greek.

J flipped his artificial tooth back in and smiled innocently, a row of straight, white teeth. After class, he got the conversation he was clearly fishing for. He explained about the tooth—and other things, including his recent divorce.

The fact that he had been married before his senior year of college was not all that shocking. This was Brigham Young University, after all, where every sidewalk crossing and Sunday School class was a potential opportunity to find your eternal companion. But the divorce had made him an almost a legendary figure among my starry-eyed schoolmates.

How bad must his marriage have been, if it had ended so quickly?

The story, like many of his stories, was truly tragic. He was clearly a victim. His first wife was a monster. And since I had come too close for comfort to a similar fate, escaping only at the last moment through God’s miraculous jaw-breaking, tooth-loosening intervention, I was sympathetic.  

Many years later, when he started to tell the same kinds of stories about me, I was less inclined to think of J’s first wife as a monster. It was more complicated than that.

My marriage to J was perfect, right up until it wasn’t. “We never disagree,” he would tell our friends when they asked our secret.

“It is important to compromise in marriage,” I would tell myself.

And we did agree, about many, many things. When we didn’t, I quickly learned to be quiet. That’s what I meant by “compromise.”

I rarely thought about my tooth during those years. Contrary to my dentist’s doomsday predictions, it didn’t give me a bit of trouble at the ten year mark. There were plenty of other troubles that year though. J was fired. We moved to Idaho, away from our family and friends. I struggled with depression and a child with severe behavioral problems.

In 2008, I lost my faith and my marriage, in quick succession.  

A few years later, I was surprised and humbled to find myself in love with the most unlikely person for me: a man who treats me well. He’s from New Jersey. His teeth are fine, and I take that as a sign of nothing more (and nothing less) than good oral hygiene habits through the years.

Shortly after I married for the second time, my new dentist gave me some bad news: my front tooth was in trouble. He couldn’t tell me how long I had, and it was just before my book tour, so we made a fake tooth flipper “just in case.”

“We wouldn’t want you to have to go on Dr. Oz with a broken tooth,” he laughed. I thought it was somewhat ironic that I would be talking about mental illness, an invisible disability, but that people would be much less likely to listen to me or take me seriously if I were missing my front tooth.

My front tooth lasted another year. Then one morning in late November, I woke up with a mouthful of blood, and that day, I decided I’d had enough. I called my dentist and scheduled the tooth extraction.

As with most reckoning days, the anticipation has proven far worse than the actual experience. Besides, as I left the dentist’s office, I found a penny. Later that day, my husband texted me a picture of a double rainbow. And I found my favorite windmill necklace that has been missing for a year.

I may be missing a tooth. But I’m lucky. I’m not missing much else.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Room in the Inn

Would you find room  for this family? "Nativity" by Carl Bloch
Do we give what we want, or what they need?

My husband and I gave each other an early Christmas present this year: a weekend “staycation” at one of our favorite Boise boutique hotels. After we checked in, surveying the chic modern décor with approval, we decided to take a Linen District walk.

A few blocks later, we ended up at what was left of Cooper Court.

Cooper Court was a tent city for the homeless that sprung up last summer in the alley behind Interfaith Sanctuary and the Corpus Christi day shelter on 16th Street. Now the days have turned cold, and city officials, rightly concerned about sanitation and possible fire hazards, had decided enough was enough. The tent city had to come down.

The city had evicted the residents the day before, and now the street was blocked off, monitored by friendly and courteous Boise City police officers who were assisting residents in moving or storing their belongings.

One young man—he looked barely 18—with curly red hair tucked beneath a baseball cap and fear in his eyes approached us. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, gesturing at the alley. “I don’t have anywhere to go.” He explained that he was unable to stay in one of the shelters because of his arrest record, and he couldn’t go to another one because, “they just treat us like animals.” A police officer approached him, addressed him by name, and asked if he could help.

As we turned the corner, my husband, who usually only cries at movies featuring dogs and/or football, burst into tears. “He was such a nice young man!” he exclaimed. “It’s just wrong.”

Walking back to our hotel in silence, we passed an elderly couple sitting beneath the freeway overpass, huddled together for warmth. In most cases, entering the shelters would mean they would have to separate: Aside from Interfaith Sanctuary, Boise doesn’t really have a solution for people like them.

The irony of the situation was not lost on us. While my husband and I certainly are not wealthy—we are both employed as adjunct college instructors—we live in a comfortable 1800 square foot home in a safe, friendly neighborhood. And here we were, just minutes from home, enjoying a weekend in a luxury hotel, while blocks away, more than 100 people were wondering where they would spend this and many more nights, hoping it wouldn’t snow.

Many of my friends erroneously thought that the city had created an alternative for the residents of Cooper Court. But the city’s shelter was temporary—one night, and a hot shower. The city was prepared for 200. Only 15 people took them up on the overnight offer. The cost to taxpayers for this operation? More than $100,000. That’s a lot of rent money. Meanwhile, Ron Winegar from the Boise Police Department admitted that the city doesn’t really have a long term solution. 

Many of my friends donate time and money, like I do, to organizations that work to help and house the least fortunate in our society. But what surprised me when Cooper Court closed down were the reactions on social media from these kind, compassionate, well-meaning people. “There is plenty of shelter space,” they said. “These people are just choosing not to take advantage of the many things we have offered them.”

The truth is, it’s not that simple. The shelter rules are onerous; there is no sense of autonomy or personal space. My friends who have spent nights there tell me that you are reminded—constantly—how “grateful” you should be for a bed and some heat, despite all the strings it comes with.

Aside from Interfaith, which has limited space, the shelter system doesn’t help families. It sometimes doesn’t help people with felonies. And it really doesn’t help people who have serious mental illness.

I’m not discounting the many volunteer hours and dollars people have given to help the homeless in our community. Nor am I saying that a tent city is a good long term solution to our obvious problem of homelessness.

What I am saying is this: To those who say, “There’s room in the inn” or “They should be grateful for what we give them,” here’s something to think about this Christmas season. Are we giving what we want to give, or are we giving what they need?

Acclaimed Boise musician Curtis Stigers and tireless homeless advocate Jodi Peterson have announced an additional show for “The Night Before the Xtreme-Unplugged” on Saturday, December 19 at the Egyptian to benefit the Corpus Christi day shelter and those displaced from Cooper Court. You can purchase tickets here. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Three Years after Newtown: Hope

Parents for Care dinner in Baltimore, with
the SuperMoms (and Dads) who advocate for their
children who have serious mental illness
Three years ago, when a mother, 20 first graders, 6 educators, and a young man with untreated mental illness died by gun violence in Newtown, Connecticut, I was on the phone with a social worker in Boise, Idaho. He wanted me to press charges for assault against my then 13-year-old son, who had threatened to kill himself a few days earlier. My back and ribs still ached, and my arms were covered with bruises and bite marks sustained when I tried to keep my son from bolting into oncoming traffic.

When I heard about Newtown Friday morning at work, I put my head on my desk and sobbed. My younger two children were still in elementary school, and I couldn’t even imagine how horrible it would be to lose them like that.

Except I could.

With Representative Tim Murphy
My third son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital--again. After years of trying to find help for him, we still didn't have answers.

But I knew two things for certain that morning. First, my son was not a bad kid. He was not a monster, or a psycho. He was a kind, sweet, sensitive boy who suffered immense pain and deserved help.

Second, I was not a bad mother.

That terrible morning in 2012, without knowing any details other than the age of the shooter and the fact that his mother--and 26 innocent people--were dead, I felt like I knew everything.

So I wrote, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mofher." And I thought I was the only mother in the entire world who could sympathize with Nancy Lanza.

It turns out I was far from alone. Mental illness touches us all in some fashion. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children will suffer a debilitating mental disorder before age 18.  Almost one in five adults will experience mental illness in any given year (excluding substance abuse disorders). l  And serious mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—affects 10 million adults, or 4% of our population.  These men and women are too often shunted into a nightmarish “revolving door” of prison and homelessness because we do not have the community or medical supports in place to provide them with life-saving treatment. 

A reading from my award-
winning book at StoryFort
Three years after Newtown, I was able to travel around the country and see what's working in mental health--and why we still have so far to go. If you want to learn more about ways you can help children and families like minhe, click on the links below to learn more about these organizations, and think about donating if you are able to do so.

In January, I made my first trip to Washington D.C. as a guest of the Treatment Advocacy Center to celebrate an advocacy award given to Representative Tim Murphy for his tireless efforts to reform the mental healthcare system at the national level. 

In February, I spoke at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Arizona annual luncheon in Phoenix, where I was able to learn about crisis wraparound services provided to children and families. 

In March, I won a 2015 “Books for a Better Life” award for “The Price of Silence” and I participated with my son in a StoryFort reading hosted by the Cabin in Boise. 

2015 APA
annual meeting in Toronto.
In April, I spoke at the North Dakota Juvenile Justice conference and also visited with several parents whose children were struggling with mental illness. I also spoke at the Showers of Hope luncheon to support the Lindner Center of Hope in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Lindner family has a legacy of philanthropy in their community; they are now contributing their resources to help fund a truly revolutionary center of excellence for mental healthcare treatment and research. I also was the keynote speaker for the Idaho Children’s Home Society, an organization that provides counseling to low income children and families in our Boise community. 

With Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, author
of "Shrinks" (must-read!)
May was a busy month. I spoke at the Siouxland Mental Health Center annual conference and learned more about partnerships with mental health courts that reduced recidivism rates for people suffering from mental illness by more than 75%. That’s a huge savings, both in taxpayer dollars and in lives. I also co-presented a workshop at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Toronto. The workshop was the brainchild of Mental Health America’s thoughtful Patrick Hendry. Every advocate should read his paper on meaningful dialogue. Finally, I gave the keynote speech for Thresholds in Chicago, where I was brought to tears by the life-changing work their staff has done as they intervene with at-risk youth and give them a chance at a bright future.

September took me to Miami, Florida, to present at the 8th annual Chair Summit, where I met psychiatric care providers from all over the Americas, including Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman and Dr. Paul Summergrad, and learned about cutting-edge new research and treatments—and enjoyed an authentic Cubano and the best ceviche I’ve ever had. When I returned, I attended my first NAMI-Boise chapter board meeting. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is one of the nation’s most prominent advocacy groups and provides free education classes for the community.

The Oklahoma City Memorial
In October, I spoke at my first non “mental health” conference. Leadership Oklahoma decided to focus their annual meeting on mental illness and its impact on the Oklahoma community. Sadly, less than a week later, a young woman with mental illness crashed into a crowd of people, killing four people. Cathy Costello, whose untreated son stabbed her husband Mark, Oklahoma’s well-respected labor commissioner, was in the audience.   

In November, I was able to meet several of my mom advocate heroes in person at the Johns Hopkins annual Schizophrenia summit. The presenters, top researchers in their field, took time to meet with us as parents and answer our questions at an event organized by the inimitable Laura Pogliano, founder of Parents for Care.  Laura’s son Zac, who suffered with schizophrenia, died tragically at the age of 23 earlier this year. 

And now, on December 14, I’m in San Diego, preparing to attend the International Bipolar Foundation board meeting. Our board members include Randi Silverman, whose poignant film, No Letting Go, tells the hopeful story of a teenager struggling with mental illness and his family, and Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge and is now sharing his powerful story to help others. 

Messages in Dutch Bros coffee lids.
Last year, on the second anniversary of Newtown, I wrote on the Huffington Post that we were “Two Years to Nowhere.”  Today, I have more hope. But real change depends on each of us. As a society, we have an obligation to provide treatment to those who suffer. As individuals, we have an ethical duty to treat one another with respect and compassion.

We still have a long way to go, but it feels like we’re finally moving in the right direction.