Some “D” Words: Part II

The road trip to visit family went well, as these things go. Driving around the Northeast corridor isn’t exactly a cakewalk, but I had good weather and few traffic issues. It helps that I like to drive. Connecting with some family and friends from long ago, who remember me as the successful doctor with a beautiful home, is easier now, since I’ve gotten comfortable with being transparent about my story. And when I share mine, people naturally share theirs.

I met a woman who lost her brother to suicide a few months ago, and an old friend who is grieving the loss of his friend in a similar fashion. I’m free of the guilt that can arise when someone shares this tragedy, secure in the conviction that the luck of the draw saved me, not some superhuman feat. It might have even been cowardice, as it takes courage to end a life.

Two people I visited shared their struggle with anxiety. According to the New York Times, this is the new twenty-first century “epidemic,” surpassing depression. This may be irrelevant, as depressed persons often have periods of anxiousness, and vice versa. They’re two sides of the same coin. What struck me was their willingness to be open about how the anxiety affects them on a day-to-day basis. They – both women – have broken through the internal walls of denial that may have kept them silent before.

There are others I know who suffer great imbalance, but who aren’t yet capable of holding a mirror to themselves. There are methods they use to avoid the topic: denying; deflecting; and demurring. I’ve written on “D” words before (see September, 2014 archive), and was going to add “decline” this list, but I think it doesn’t quite fit. Many use these means to evade both addressing their own brain health issues or acknowledging those of others. You can imagine how much trouble this causes.

Deny’s root, the Latin denego, means to say it isn’t so, and to subject one’s will to another’s. The PIE root, *ne-, means simply “no.” The mental health world is full of denial; the word penetrates all layers of consideration. People who are ill can be deniers, but many with “healthy” brains can be deeply embedded too. Their refusal to recognize or acknowledge the suffering of others is a major impediment to speedy healing. When someone reaches out for help, they must subject themselves to the will of insurance companies, providers, and others who take part in the denial business. It’s all so tragic and unnecessary.

Deflect derives from the Latin deflecto, to bend downward or turn aside, and sometimes to avoid or turn off. Many who suffer are masters of this maneuver. Questioning how they’re doing results in an immediate change of subject. Why does this happen? It’s fear, of course, of being perceived as nuts, or less than, or incapable of living up to the expectations of others, or even themselves. Sadly, this default behavior may be caused by the dismissive posture of others. Either way, it makes the road more difficult.

Demur, defined as to raise doubts or show reluctance, arose from the Latin moror, to delay, wait, or hinder. I remember the massive reluctance I felt when things were spiraling downward and I had many, many difficulties to surmount. I just couldn’t face it at the time, and so what had been a mild depression intensified to a life-threatening condition. But again, I want to put that shoe on some other feet by pointing out how damaging it was for others to demur from comprehending the depth of my loss and illness.

At a deeper level, demur’s PIE root of *mere- (to hinder) gave rise to the English moratorium, defined as a temporary prohibition of an activity. In a way, the women who shared their stories with me took a moratorium on chronic silence, and I was glad to share their burden and encourage them to stay the course. One has been getting therapy in various forms for a year now, long enough to experience the benefits. I’d like to see the other pursue a similar course. We got far enough in the conversation for her to recognize the possibilities here.

I don’t know about you, but I can name names of others – family, friends, acquaintances – who persist in denial and deflection, and it saddens me to think of the consequences that result. Getting help for brain health issues is no panacea by any means, but help can come in many forms, and can be quicker and more powerful than you think. Sometimes, simply acknowledging the problem is more than half the battle, and a few little tweaks can make all the difference in the world.

Well, since I’ve done the three new “D” words I might as well visit decline. Its root, the Latin decline, means to turn from the straight path, or turn aside. But the PIE root, *klein-, means “to lean.” In the end, this is what it’s all about. If there’s no one to lean on, if we don’t take the steps to support one another, the topic becomes moot in the end. And there’s a quirky word I can blog about on another rainy day. . .

Three Ways to View Conflict, Large or Small

Someone I know is having major difficulties with her daughter, who is dealing with a major trauma is reacting badly to it. The daughter – let’s call her Jane, and she’s a full adult – is acting out, violently at times, and simply cannot control her emotional excess. When her mother tried to call the police, Jane put all the phones in the house out of commission, fast. After a while, things calmed down, but I know that this will happen again.

It’s clear that Jane and her mother are in serious conflict. In exploring this word, I wondered how others characterize it. There’s tons in the world of politics, where terms of global, regional, or local conflicts abound. The world of writing, Hollywood, and even comedy, speaks of conflicts in plot, personality, and theme.

Most conflicts frameworks are described as having three layers. Why three? I have no idea. But the one I like most is this: 1) an individual vs the world (defined as anything from a locality to the globe); 2) one individual vs another; and 3) an individual vs himself, otherwise known as inner conflict. In a really simplistic way, this covers it all.

This Jane issue has an aspect beyond a mother-daughter conflict, because she’s had difficulties since middle school, and the family sought help then. Now, regardless of her tendency to say no to things like talk therapy, there’s the issue of finding and paying for help, an example of individual vs “world” conflict. Both parties are engaged in a deep battle with self. And they’re also fighting with each other.

The linguistic roots of conflict are somber in nature. The Latin noun conflictus means a striking together, fight, or contest. The PIE root, *bhlig-, is to strike. The related Latin verb affligo – the root of the English afflict – means to strike down, weaken, and devalue. When speaking of the mind or character of a person, affligo has meanings like dejected, discouraged, abandoned, and outcast.

Serious conflict is often seen as a zero-sum game, which means that the losing party can feel dejected, outcast, and devalued. Neither Jane nor her mom want things to end this way, but they’re stuck in an ongoing battle being waged on the three fronts noted above. Observing this from afar, I’m convinced that this will go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, mom’s hands are tied. Like many parents of adult children with brain health issues, she can’t do a thing until Jane gives the go-ahead. We all know the tragic consequences that can result without proper help.

I usually think of two concepts when conflict enters the picture –  resolution, and management – and I’m a much bigger fan of the former. One definition of management is “the process of dealing with or controlling things or people,” which sounds well-nigh impossible to achieve. And besides, the Latin root – manus, meaning hand – is lacking in a creative application). A resolution, though, is the “action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter.”  It’s got a much more win-win ring to it.

Resolve has rich roots which are easily applied to conflict. The Latin resolvo means to unbind, release, set free, or open. Other meanings include to disclose, reveal, relax, and soften. (One meaning is even “to pay,” an ironic component of the health insurance issue). The PIE root, *se-lu-, means to loosen or cut apart. Nobody likes conflict (although it’s said that some people thrive on it); when it comes our way, we can’t wait to be set free.

The issues with Jane and her mom (which I’m not at liberty to disclose here; like some of James Comey’s information, this begs a closed hearing) are years in the making and will take years to resolve. All three layers must be attended to, including the “world” matter of the “mental health system.” I think of it as the PIC – the Psycho-Industrial Complex. Jane has a service job, an old car, and bare-bones insurance. The financial burden she and her mom face to just get talk therapy looks prohibitive, which is one of the reasons for her thanks-but-no-thanks posture. We place a high price on these services, which sets the stage for discouragement and dejection on the part of the “consumer” before things even get started.

In the meantime, can Jane and her mom resolve their interpersonal conflict and deep inner struggles without the help of a third party? An image of a bridge in Brooklyn arises. . . I can only encourage her mom – my contact point, and the source of information about their problems – to start with her personal layers and go from there. By exploring and revealing inner wounds, she – and Jane, eventually – can cut themselves loose from the binds that prevent healing.

I think back to the trauma I bore in the not-too-distant past, including a conflicted relationship with my daughter Squeaky. In hindsight, I can see how I hurt her, and how my illness made resolution impossible for some years. Her acting out was a teenager’s response to a very serious imbalance in the family. I am grateful every day for the efforts we made to resolve things. One day, I hope Jane and her mom can find resolution too, and be set free to a future of happier years.



Lessons from Damaged Creatures

Photo by Morgaine Enfiejian-Stewart

I’m a drive-thru junkie, especially when it comes to my morning coffee. I fell prey to the über-convenience, mostly because my back and knee issues impair pain-free mobility. Like most, I’m a creature of habit, and patronize the same McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. I like to get to know the names of servers I see frequently.

One day I gave my business card to one of them, a young brown woman who often wore hijab, and offered smiles – some days red-lipped, others not – that seemed a bit too forced to be real. My How ya doin’? might be answered with a simple Okay, but once or twice I saw the tears peek through. Let’s just say it takes one to know one.

She called, and we met. She and her family emigrated here a few years ago from Bangladesh, chasing the proverbial American Dream.  Let’s call her Angela (which Wiki lists as the 64th most common female Bangladeshi name). She’s my kids’ age, and is already a citizen with an Associate’s Degree from a local community college. But she lacks a driver’s license, and a decent job, and her father died two years ago.

What do Angela and the sea turtle above (in a photo taken by my daughter Squeaky during a recent scuba excursion) have in common? I’m not going to reiterate turtle’s powerful messages, which are in the archives (see May, 2015 and June, 2016). Take a closer look. This turtle is an amputee – it’s missing a front flipper. And Angela is suffering from being cut off from her extended family, friends, and land of birth. And it’s making her new life in American difficult.

Amputate derives from the Latin amputo, which is eponymous to the English. It can also mean to eradicate and exclude. The PIE root, *pau-, means to cut and stamp. Angela’s sadness arises – in part – from the attitude of a subgroup of Americans, both customers and coworkers, who think she and her kind should be eradicated from our land. These people say, Go back to your country, both to her face and behind her back. Although her grasp of English is excellent, she struggles with local dialect, and has to endure people call her stupid and lazy when she doesn’t understand what they’re saying. It’s like someone placed a big fat “NOT ONE OF US” stamp on her forehead for all to see. But she still holds the dreams all women here have: finishing college; learning to drive; supporting herself and her widowed mother.

The front flipper of a turtle is crucial to survival. In a study of sea turtles caught in an offshore nuclear plant’s underwater labyrinth, 7% were found to have flipper amputations. Many were man-made, caused by propeller damage or fishing net ensnarement. All species studied were endangered and protected. The total was thought to be an underestimate, because amputees may not survive long. The flippers are needed for locomotion in sea and on land, and are critical for proper mating activities of both genders. Imagine trying to evade a lion with only one leg!

The great majority of immigrants to the US are solid, hard-working people, like my Austrian grandparents who arrived about a century ago. We native-born need to walk the walk of diversity, not just talk the talk. The Latin diversus means different, but also apart, and even hostile. Diverse talents, personalities, and opinions can help communities survive, just as Squeaky’s sea turtle did. Does Angela deserve the hostility she faces?

Amputo also means to prune, and it’s fascinating that new research on brain disorders from schizophrenia to depression to Alzheimer’s points to pruning problems as a possible explanation for the pathology. As we mature, our brain prunes synapses – areas of connection between two brain fibers – when they’re no longer needed. There’s evidence that pruning doesn’t happen properly in some conditions, and the result can be anything from abnormal thoughts to memory loss, and more.

We need to stop making assumptions and remind ourselves how little we know about addiction and the brain conditions we call mental illness. The PIE root above also gave us words like account and compute, deputy and rate.  I enjoy meeting immigrants and fellow-sufferers of brain health issues because I learn fascinating accounts of their life stories. Many contain tragedies that would challenge even the hardiest, yet inspiring triumphs keep them afloat.

These people all have much to offer. We err when we rate them as lacking, or less than. With instruction and patience, we can deputize them by identifying their skills and putting them to work. Angela is working, but well below her capacity. She wants to learn more, do more, achieve more, and give more. She – like all of us with brain health conditions – is here to stay. By not cutting her off from the true American spirit of teamwork, acceptance, and innovation, we can help mer repair the damage and make her dream come true.


The study on sea turtle injuries at an offshore nuclear power plant in Florida can be found here:



The Twenty-First Century’s Flanders Fields

Every year, when Memorial Day rolls around – and early November, too –  I consider writing about the international symbol of veteran sacrifice: the poppy. And every year I pass it by.  Until now. I decided to face this lovely plant head-on, and see what it can teach me.

There were red poppies in my grandmother’s garden. My memories contain not only the beauty of their delicate flowers, but the mystery of their seed pods, too. Shaking the dry pods and watching the seeds spill out was more fun than the pepper shaker on the dinner table. In high school, when I learned about heroin from news accounts of its use by soldiers in Viet Nam, I was fascinated with the unripe pods that contained the gummy source of the narcotic. I also loved the poppy seed strudel we had as a special dessert, hoping (mistakenly) that it would give me my first “high.”

One common species, the corn poppy, is considered an agricultural weed and is similar to the dandelion in its ability to take over an open field.  Like dandelion, too, they secrete latex. Their blood red color symbolizes sacrifice in many cultures, and in others is considered a sign of love. But what about the word itself, poppy?

The scientific name of the narcotic-producing species is Papaver somniferum, thus nicknamed “poppy,” with the genus name thought to be from the Latin pappo, to eat. The thick, gray-white fluid from the seed pods resembles breast milk. I found something else about the PIE root *pap-, to swell, but this doesn’t fit in quite so nicely.

I discovered something else that’s completely off topic: the Greek word for poppy is mekonion, from which we derive the Latin and English meconium, the earliest stool of a newborn mammal. Yes, that’s right, baby’s first poop. I learned about meconium in med school, and its potential harm if discharged into the amniotic fluid where it can enter the baby’s lungs. It’s a thick, black, viscous substance (I’ve never seen it) that resembles the dried discharge from poppy’s seed pod.

The dissolution of a military draft in the US brought a lowering of the bar with respect to requirements for the volunteer army. More recruits than ever enter service with existing brain health or substance abuse issues. The schedules, structure, and educational opportunities can doubtless help many, but for some – especially those unlucky enough to encounter combat – the stress can be deadly. Unbalanced by unidentified or poorly managed childhood issues, they implode. The resulting PTDS, depression, anxiety and anger provide fertile ground for the seduction of poppy’s main product.

This brings to mind an often-ignored issue: the impact of brain health conditions and addiction on children. We pay attention to the sufferers, sure, in a big and messy way, but how much effort is expended on these silent victims? And speaking of addiction, I learned that by testing meconium you can determine if the mother used nicotine or alcohol while pregnant. This dramatic example of early detection still falls short in that some fetal damage is already done.

Most veterans become parents; we must think of the damage – real and potential – to their spouses and offspring as they navigate the difficult path to healing. Poppy’s feminine aspect speaks of dreams, peace, and sleep, all lunar energies. When I see us put brain and addiction research on the back burner of national priorities, I can’t help but think we’re asleep at the switch. I can only dream of the day when we’ll get our act together and put more resources into this area, in a rational, goal-oriented way.

In the military, a goal is mission, a word I’ve explored before (see April, 2016 archive). From the Latin missionem, it’s defined as an act of sending, releasing, or setting free.  We send our troops to war zones, where some are set free in the ultimate sacrifice. But many who return face years of struggle in finding release from the traumatic memories they bear.

It’s important to remember that a deep understanding of trauma’s impact is still in its infancy. Like meconium, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Simple screenings like the ACE score* can help identify children at risk. Why we pour so much more money into treatment (mainly pharmacological, and talk) than prevention is beyond me. ACE surveillance shows that lack of a peaceful and secure environment in childhood predicts higher rates of debilitating conditions later in life. Like the milk that oozes from the poppy, identifying and supporting both veterans and children who are vulnerable will nurture resilience, as well as the vibrant flowering and beauty of the individual within.


*Learn more about the ACE score here:

Secrets of the Fisher Cat

Last year my friend Kimberly’s son was bitten by a fisher cat while hiking in the Connecticut woods. I had no idea what she was talking about. But I’m in the know now, since one sauntered across the road when I was driving home this week on a back road. I took a good look, described it to Kimberly, and she got me on track with a proper ID.

These critters are not cats at all but are part of the weasel family, which includes ferrets, minks, badgers and so much more. Many – like the ermine, and including the fisher – are valued for their fur pelts. In fact, the fisher was almost eliminated in North America by hunting. It bounced back after restrictions were implemented.

Weasel wisdom differs by culture, but a unifying attribute is the ability to go about its business silently and unseen. Many members – including the fisher – are solitary. They’re also fiercely territorial, and even more so when it comes to threats to offspring. Kimberly’s son was bitten by the fisher, and was advised to get rabies shots, but it’s more likely that the animal was in defense as opposed to viral mode. (Better safe than sorry though, given how deadly rabies can be.)

Fishers are crepuscular – more active at dawn and dusk, like owls and rabbits – which minimizes the chance of detection by predators. Their solitary, silent habits are the characteristics we misapply to humans we call weasels: the people version is sneaky, deceptive, and trying to pull one over on you. This is the last thing on weasel’s mind; it’s simply trying to survive.

Many cultures view the silence and stealth as symbolic of secrecy. Secret, from the Latin secretus, meaning hidden or apart from, is from the PIE root *krei-, which I explored in my last post when writing about the word crisis. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen plenty of crisis events erupt in families and friendships when secrets are revealed. My own grandmother – an Austrian immigrant who referred to my grandfather as the devil because he chased her, precipitating an eventual marriage to avoid an out-of-wedlock child – nevertheless wrote him a letter prior to the wedding about how cold her bed was when he wasn’t there. I discovered that letter years after her death, and it forever changed the view of her (and him!) that I held for most of my life.

A most amazing thing about the fisher, though, is that its hind feet can rotate 180°, allowing it to climb down trees head first, a rare attribute for mammals. Its feet are relatively large compared to body size, endowing them with built-in snowshoes. Also, they are one of the few animal predators of porcupines. For years, common myth held that it attacked the vulnerable belly, but careful observation revealed a crueler behavior of repeatedly biting the nose until the porcupine succumbs. Well, somebody has to keep them in check.

This all brings to mind the secrecy inherent in living with brain health issues and addiction. So much goes unsaid due to fear of reprisal, dismissal, or being viewed as somehow “less than.” Internal suffering is held close to the vest, precipitating worsening of the issue, or even loss of life. The secrets and fear lead to more isolation; like the fisher, the sufferer drifts to habits and behaviors that are solitary and unseen.

Can we choose to search for the special attributes of those so afflicted? Can we look for their ability to get down a tree head-first, to recognize the uniqueness of gifts that allow them to accomplish amazing feats? And what about the porcupine? The fisher pursues something that other can’t approach, a thing too dangerous to even bother with. But the pursuit is head on: the nose is attacked until the prize is won.

Fisher faces the fear that turns others away. Persons with brain health issues must face the intimidating complexity of their own condition. I picture the illness as the porcupine, balling up and hiding in wait, hoping its painful barbs will allow a victorious outcome in the end. But the fisher waits too, and doggedly comes back, nipping away at obstacles and deterrents until it gets what it’s after: nourishment and peace.

By failing to recognize the value of those afflicted, by prohibiting them from engaging in productive lives and relationships, we miss out on experiencing the richness of their hidden gifts. We are not weasels; we’re a highly social species that relies on interaction with each other to thrive and survive. If you want to be like porcupine, and believe that sharp criticism and self-containment are useful ways to deal with those afflicted by brain health issues, you might want to reconsider. There may come a day when the weasel you despise will find a way to have you for lunch.


What You Can Gain from Violence

Recently I got up close and personal to interpersonal violence, aka domestic violence, through some women who are dealing with it. I’m not sure they know that my first ex-husband hit me, too. This was back in the seventies, and it sure shocked the hell out of me. It always happened when we were arguing; it was abrupt and infrequent. I left him after putting up with it for years. I blamed myself, believing that by continuing our arguments I took him to some unpredictable breaking point. I didn’t know any better.

At its core, it’s about power. The violence umbrella includes various controlling behaviors – physical, psychological, financial, etc. – but the end result is domination. My über-literal brain always conjures up the physical when I see the word violence; I have to remind myself that supremacy takes many forms.

Violence arose from the Latin root violentus, meaning forcible or violent. The PIE root, *weie-, means to go after, to pursue with vigor or desire, and is also the root of the English word “gain.” Perpetrators – men or women, straight, gay, or otherwise – are in it to gain and maintain power. In this sometimes-deadly game, they’re in it to win.

Battered partners stay until a crisis point is reached. Many stay silent. Once the crisis occurs, they can encounter disbelief and skepticism from friends and family. They may be told they’re overreacting, or that they should stay and keep trying. This becomes part of the crisis itself. Crisis, from the Greek krisis and the PIE root *krie-, means to sieve, distinguish, or discriminate. (The Greek root was co-opted by Greek physicians – including Hippocrates – to mean a turning point in a disease.)

Victims of interpersonal violence must sift through conflicting issues before arriving at the decision to end the relationship. They face apologies and professions of love (real or otherwise), threats, physical or financial isolation, and more. There may be children involved. They are quick to forgive, and hopeful for change. Their persistence and trust seem boundless at times, but are eventually diminished and depleted, then replaced by fear and exhaustion. At that point, they make their move.

Depending on the nature of their crisis, they may also face the need for asylum in the truest sense of the word, defined as “shelter or protection from danger.”  The root of asylum – the Greek asylos –  means “free from the right of seizure.” When you obtain asylum, the wolves at the door remain hungry. For the time being at least, you’re safe.

Depending on where you live though, finding asylum can be more daunting than sticking it out with the perpetrator. If you’ve suffered in silence, you can face incredulity after spilling the beans. Rest assured that your partner will be busy with attempts to destroy your credibility. Local shelters are inadequate, and temporary. There aren’t enough, and they’re often understaffed. This is the last resort before true homelessness, a horrific option for anyone, and even worse when children are involved.

A relationship based on violence takes years to mature. The initial firm basis of trust and love is eroded over time, with escalating instances of deception and dominance that are dosed – like dangerous medicine – with careful timing and observation. This spider’s web is neither facile nor swift; small defects must be detected and repaired for the entrapment to function properly. When a chance to break free – whether fortuitous or intentional – finally arrives, the victim may find themselves alone and unaided, hanging by a thread until a safe landing materializes.

Although perpetrators have the upper hand initially, the victim still has something to gain. Summoning the courage to gather resources, they begin to distinguish that they can reach a new goal. That PIE root, *weie-, also gave birth to; the Greek heimi, to move forward or strive; the German Weide, pasture; and the old Norse veiòr, hunting and fishing. They learn that nothing stays the same, that safe refuge can be found, and that your energies are best spent pursuing other ventures. The secret is time, an awful lot of time.

The crisis of violence also brings the discovery of your true allies. Although the very nature of the situation is founded on isolation, you can revive solid past friendships, or strike out and make new ones. You may have to knock on ten doors to have one open a crack, but that door can lead to a lifetime of support.

Knowing a couple in the throes of this trap will put your discrimination skills to the test. Rest assured, someone is lying, and initially it may be best to just not take sides. Over time, and with clarity, you can give the victim support that can range from a shoulder to cry on to a physical space for asylum. This generosity will return to you tenfold.

When I left my ex, I stayed in someone’s apartment for a week, sleeping on the floor until I could find my own apartment. I was lucky – I had a paycheck and no kids to worry about. Although my heart still breaks for those entrapped, I believe that most can find the strength to break the toxic bond. I also know they can’t do it alone.








It’s All in the Context

Many times, when people with major brain health issues (including addiction) share their stories, they’re met with the proverbial blank stare. As the details emerge – whether you’re doing the short or long version – that deer-in-the-headlights look materializes on the listener’s face. It’s easy to recognize; I’ve seen it myself many times. It’s as if the recipient can’t absorb what you’re saying. The listening switch gets turned off. It’s hard to hear these stories, for sure, but what results is self-blame and shame in the sufferer. Sharing painful narratives is part of healing, and – at least in my case – it seems to be more potent when I’m not paying the listener.

A crucial component of sharing is to have someone put themselves in your shoes, to have them actively inhabit the painful path you walked. It’s about having them see you in the appropriate context. The root of context is the Latin contexo, meaning to weave, entwine, unite, or connect. Funny, because I always focused on the “text” part, and thought it had to do with words. No, it’s all about the fabric. The PIE root, *teks-, means to weave, and also to fabricate.

There were times I felt as if people tuned out because they thought I was making things up, that much of my story was fabricated (in the modern sense of being facetious). Those who truly listened were often incredulous; they couldn’t believe so many bad players and events entered my life at the same time. You can’t make this stuff up, was my standard reply. I know how it came to pass, because it happened to me!

Helpful listening means that you weave and wear someone else’s clothes at that particular moment in time. It’s a form of social union, a connector. Again, it isn’t easy, but the sufferer usually doesn’t want you to take action, they just want you to wear the outfit for a while to get a sense of what it feels like. Those clothes may have been very constricting, or perhaps scratchy, prickly, or painful. They might not have kept out the cold rain and wind, leaving one exposed to uncontrollable elements that leave you battered, depleted, or damaged in a big way.

It’s important to listen and respond without blame and judgment, and with an attitude of understanding and forgiveness. This provides a healing absolution. To absolve is to set someone free of blame, guilt, and responsibility. Now we all know that those in the throes of addiction bought and took the drugs, and the person with uncontrolled mania paved their path of grandiosity, but we have to step back and remember the context. These behaviors occur in a situation of brain imbalance that still remains mysterious in its origins. Absolve is related etymologically to solve, both arising from the Latin solvere, which means to loosen, to set free, to take apart or release. Listening provides freedom from guilt.

Absolve and solve are linguistic first cousins, but absolution doesn’t solve the problems encountered in brain health issues, it just makes them easier to bear. It allows someone to wipe their psychic slate clean for a moment, and to garner enough strength to take another step. It’s like a warm, soft blanket that the listener weaves and places on shoulders that are too burdened to take on any more.

I went to Catholic confession for most of my childhood and was granted absolution for minor infractions like eating meat on Fridays or lying to my parents. I was given penance by the priest in the form or mandated Our Fathers or Hail Mary’s. Penance’s root, the Latin paene, means lacking, almost, or not enough. You get a penance because you didn’t do enough to stay out of trouble in the first place. It’s amazing how lacking our knowledge of brain health issues remains today, yet we continue to deny forgiveness or absolution to those who are caught in the tangles of its broad net.

I did my first summer market yesterday, and sold a book to a young woman who shared her addiction story with me. Her pain was visible in the scars that striped her arms. I knew she was broke, so I cut her a break on the price, and was happy that she pulled the word transcend from the bag. It really made her day, and it made mine to have her admire my work enough to sacrifice some food money to invest in me. And for that brief encounter I tried to wear her clothes, to put her young life and suffering in the proper context, and to grant her the absolution of my nonjudgmental stance.

I felt so far away from blaming and judging that a sense of compassion seemed to arise spontaneously. The work I’ve done to suspend condemnation is why I could get to this point. She told me she writes poetry, and will use my book as a source of inspiration. Through this mutual exchange of understanding and discourse, we both walked away with something encouraging. In the grand context of life, I’d call that a win-win.


The Power of the Lowly Dandelion

I worked a small health fair this week at a local nursing home, and the word that was pulled most frequently was “potential.” I really needed to hear that. Working for free in brain health advocacy is draining; I needed a reminder that the potential exists to inform, and to change attitudes. I can’t give up. It doesn’t hurt that I finally got back in the pool and am working my way back up to a mile of laps in my slow but steady crawl.

Potential and possible both have their roots in the Latin potis, meaning powerful and capable, as well as strongest and better when referring to a person. The PIE root, *poti, means powerful and “lord,” and has intense masculine connotations.  Potis is the birthplace of potent. The vigor and vitality are hard to deny.

Who would think that a lowly dandelion could take the word potential to a whole new level? I was downtown getting ready to mount the rickety stairs to my little space when the guy in the photo caught my eye. The back of my building is Rust Belt-industrial; I was told it was an old mattress factory and there’s not a spot of green to be seen. But here was the dandelion, a true harbinger of spring, an organism many view as unsightly, emerging from the concrete displaying all of its potential.

Dandelion gets its name from the French dent-de-lion, meaning lion’s tooth, supposedly arising from the shape of the flower petals. The bright yellow is a sun signifier, associated with fire, although the fluffy white seed head – called a parachute ball – is often paired with air. The entire plant is edible, and it’s packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and minerals. The flower head can be eaten, and contains compounds in the helenin family (chemicals found in a plant named for Helen of Troy) that have anticancer properties. The stems, leaves, and roots can be eaten too. It’s the source of dandelion tea and salad greens, and the root can be dried and ground to make ersatz coffee or root beer. The flowers are a dye source, too.

But wait – there’s more! It’s a natural clock, with flowers opening at 5 a.m. and closing at 6 p.m. sharp. These flowers last longer than those of other wild plants, a testament to endurance. The seed head fractal array is governed by the golden ratio, a mathematical formula for a spiral that places each seed at a different angle from the center than another, allowing for maximal spacing of seeds in the globe. The seed fibers are great at storing water. The individual seed fibers function as a parachute, allowing for safe ascent as the winds scatter it, in addition to a soft landing at the end of the trip.

They reproduce asexually, obviating the need for male/female conflict. This is known as apomixes, Greek for “away from mixing.” This is a huge reminder of our capacity to be self-sufficient when needed. I spent hours as a child pulling up dandelions in the yard at my grandmother’s behest, unaware that – as a “companion plant” – their taproot loosens the soil and provides nutrients for other plants. They provide nectar for bees. The white, gluey stuff that oozes from their stems is actually a source of latex!

I don’t know about you, but I will never look at dandelions the same again. This whole exercise reminds me of how we often view people with brain health issues or addiction as useless entities, bothersome and unworthy of a second glance. Like the dandelion, sufferers face daunting challenges when it comes to being self-sufficient and making useful contributions. Like the dandelion seed globe, they’re packed – but not too tightly! – into group homes and jails, kept separate from society in a manner that clearly violates the infamous Golden Rule.  God forbid they should mix with the normals!

But just look at the dandelion’s enormous potential! We need to follow its sun message and shine some light on what those with brain issues can contribute. We must see the vitality in them. They are stronger and better than we realize. We all blew dandelion seeds in the innocent fancies of youth, believing that the wish we made will land just so, and our dreams will come true. We can’t wish brain health issues away. We can use the seeds’ air message as a reminder to channel our thoughts in more creative and helpful ways. How often do we lose lives and productivity by failing to provide a safe landing for the misfortunate?

At the end of the mini-fair, a man pulled the word “watch.” He laughed, and – pulling a box out of his pocket –  showed me a watch he brought to give to a worker there who had washed his feet when he was a patient. (These were his exact words, reminding me of Holy Thursday). He left, after which – getting ready to pack up –  I noticed the watch in my supplies bag. I found him, and returned it. Those two words from the fair – watch, and potential – had very important messages for me. Little did I know that a lowly dandelion would see to it that I would never forget their power.





Special Messages from Rabbit

This week, poking through other blogs, I found a post by someone who ended up needing food stamps to feed her kids when she went through a rough time.* An educated and independent woman – like me – she was humiliated at being obliged to use a government “handout.” I know the feeling well. She wrote that she turned her shame around by asking what was so special about her, that she shouldn’t take help when needed?

This simple sleight of thought allowed her to accept her circumstances; it diminished the indignity of standing at the grocery check-out, holding up the line because the card balance wasn’t sufficient, or because you have to pay separately for unapproved items. Her situation was temporary. But many others – including those with severe brain health conditions – have to deal with this every day. It was the word “special” that really jumped out at me.

We all want to feel special. Excluding narcissists who need constant attention, people want to be noticed for something that sets them apart, something they worked hard at, something they’re especially proud of. Today we question the harm that can result from heaping indiscriminate praise on our kids, but sooner or later everybody grows up, and we enter lives of decided un-specialness.

Special’s root is the Latin specialis, which means individual or particular, and not general. The deeper root is species, which means look or appearance, as well as a mental idea or notion. It can also mean pretext or resemblance. So despite species birthing the word specific, there were times it didn’t have to be exactly just so, at least to the Romans. Going deeper yet takes us to the Latin specio, to look, and the PIE root *spek-, meaning to observe or to consider.

In English, special is both an adjective and a noun. We all enjoy restaurant or retail specials, when we eat seasonal treats or save our hard-earned money. In school, we have special ed teachers, like my daughter Squeaky, who are trained to teach kids that have trouble learning in an ordinary way. But for most of us, how often does something special come our way? It leaves you wondering.

For months now I’ve been ruing the absence of nature messages that seem special to me. No matter what came my way this last half-year or so, it’s always been something I encountered before. But while my mom was in hospice a few weeks ago, I woke up at dawn one day and saw a very large rabbit bounding across the grass. It reminded me of the rabbits that lived in my parents’ backyard in Pennsylvania, and how excited I was if I glimpsed any babies. And last Sunday was the bunny holiday, wasn’t it?

Rabbits signify fertility, and have multiple litters each year. Rabbits and rodents are common prey, so they replace themselves frequently. They are most active at dusk and dawn, and hide during daylight to avoid discovery. They are masters at the sudden freeze, typically followed by rapid escape efforts characterized by hops, leaps and frequent directional changes.

Although the Chinese consider rabbit an omen of good luck, other cultures focus on the energy of fear. Rabbits fear their predators; hence the hiding in broad daylight, the freezing when threatened, the near-frenzy of their escape routines. Some say that rabbit’s fear can actually attract its predators, thus reminding us to look fear in the face and find a way to transcend it. This is often easier said than done, but is a valuable lesson nonetheless.

Dawn and dusk, when rabbit is most active, are shadow times that also symbolize fear. Although we each have shadows we dread, we certainly don’t regard them as special. We avoid them like the plague. When suppressed and denied, they can amplify, surface, and drive us to harmful decisions and behaviors. But rabbit reminds us that an escape route can be found, although it may be difficult at times. We may have to shelter in place for a while, waiting for the safe path to emerge. We may have to zigzag our way out of things.

Rabbit reminds us that we are repositories for fertile ideas that can be brought to fruition if we just stick to it. Each of us possesses gifts to shepherd from shadow to daylight, where others can see and consider them.  When observing what others have to offer, we must beware of pretense, and remember that all may not be as it seems.

At times it’s hard to see the special in others, but taking steps to find can reap unexpected rewards. It’s a skill I’m developing in the group sessions I run in the psych ward. For a few, the brain illnesses that put them there can make it near impossible for them to connect to fellow humans. It’s then that I search for that special something: a genuine smile; a flattering sweater; or maybe the sheer courage it took for them to just show up. It’s then that I remember the people who did – and still do – the same for me.

* Here’s the link to that blog post: