The Sankofa Bird Takes a Sentimental Journey

I’ve gone back to school – again! – and am taking classes in a writing program. One assignment is to complete an in-depth analysis of a memoir written over a half-century ago: Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy. Now, I didn’t think I’d enjoy a coming-of-age story written by a white guy who would be in his eighties today. But I was wrong. The story of his sad childhood affected me deeply, as they always do. Describing himself at age eleven, he writes, “Like most children I was antisentimental and quick to hear false notes.” For whatever reason, that sentence pulled me up short.

What exactly did he mean by antisentimental? And what is the difference between sentimental and sensitive? And how does an antisemtimental constitution make it easy to “hear false notes?” Was I a sentimental child, or a sensitive one? Did this set me up for an adulthood of depression?

I remember shedding real tears during episodes of the original “Lassie” TV show when a character was threatened or hurt. My father and sisters would ridicule me, but my mom always came to my defense, telling them to leave me alone, that I was just “melancholy.”  This never failed to prompt the same response from my father: “Yeah, she’s melancholy all right. She has a head like a melon and a face like a collie.”

This statement embedded itself in my psyche over the years. I still remember sitting on the living room floor after he said it, wondering if I’d wake up in the morning looking like some freakish chimera. It didn’t help that at school they called me Helen-Helen-Watermelon, or that I seemed to cry most during a show about a collie dog.

Sentimental is defined as “dealing with (or prone to) feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.”  And sensitive, as “quick to respond to slight changes, signals, or influences” as well as “a quick and delicate appreciation of others’ feelings.”  Both words – as well as sentient – derive from the Latin verb sentio, which means to discern by the senses, as well as to feel, perceive, observe, or notice. Frank Conroy could hear false notes, which demonstrates his sensitivity, but his antisentimental nature precluded feelings of sadness and nostalgia which those notes might evoke in someone like me. Or so he said. I don’t believe it.

But the PIE root of sentio is *sent-, means “to go.” This gave rise to German, Irish, and Welsh words that mean “to strive after, to travel” and the noun “way.” The basic concept is about finding one’s way. Tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia do take us on a journey, if we’re brave enough to board the train. (And then there’s sensible, which jumped the tracks and headed for another destination.)

Conroy must have become more sentimental in adulthood; nostalgia had to arise as he wrote the memoir. Nostalgia’s root is the Greek algos, meaning pain, grief or distress (and is related to a suffix I used all the time in medicine – algia – as in myalgia, cephalgia, etc.), along with nostos, meaning escape, return, or reach home. Another word signifying a journey. The PIE root of nostos, *nes-, means to return safely home, and gave rise to German and Gothic words that mean to recover, and to heal.

It’s all about that universal angst, that feeling of wanting to be safely home, wherever that may be. I think we need more sentimentalizing, more productive and reflective nostalgia, given the polarizing feelings and behaviors that dominate our culture today. Although part of the healing from brain health issues like depression does involve letting go of the past, we still need to look back and take what serves us from it. We need to pack it along for the ride.

Over the weekend I heard a radio piece about the Sankofa bird, a mythical creature of the Ghanaian Akan people that represents taking what is good from the past and using it for positive progress now. The bird’s feet are moving forward, but the head faces back to pluck an egg off its back. In the Twi language, Sankofa translates as “Go back and get it,” being derived from three elements: san – to return; ko – to go; and fa – to fetch. It’s a reminder to retrieve lost or forgotten wisdom from the past to use now, and in future times.

Our ongoing addictions to the newest thing, the latest craze, make us lose track of the egg on our back – that embryo of knowledge, that kernel of sense – that can be incubated, hatched, and used for the common good. At my lowest, I was consumed by failures and losses, and that egg was totally invisible to me. Now, I look back and remember what got me through the tough times. I mine my past for eggy-gems. Then I turn my mind to the future, and try to move one foot forward again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tennyson Poem, Revisited

I don’t come from a military family. My Uncle Carl – the youngest son on the Evrard side – was an enlisted man in the Air Force, and some of my cousin Betsy’s daughters went to the Naval Academy, but that’s about it. My dad tried to enlist in the Army in World War II but was rejected because of a hernia. He told me they didn’t have time to get him into fighting shape. He was drafted after the war, when they fixed the hernia and sent him around the country to dismantle barracks. He was good enough to serve then, after all those other lives were lost.

Thus, there’s little family legacy or culture that I can tap into to handle the fact that my daughter Morgaine (aka Squeaky) is living in Guam, the Pacific island in the crosshairs of the lethal weaponry of a North Korean tyrant. I’ve been in touch with Squeaky by phone. She sounds very Katy Winters: calm, cool, and protected. Her equanimity is even more amazing, given that my son-in-law is in Seattle with his Coast Guard crew. (Their boat is in dry dock.) She’s going through this international crisis all by herself.

An old high school classmate texted me this weekend, unaware of Squeaky’s precarious situation. We’ve only recently reconnected after all these years, primarily to discuss the brain health issues of one of her children, and she was shocked to find out what happened to me, the class valedictorian. “Hope all is reasonable,” she wrote (I admire her concise style, which is not in my constitution). Reasonable, I thought, not a word we use a lot these days. I only wish. . .

Reason’s verb root is the Latin reor, which means to reckon or calculate. This verb gave rise to the noun ratio, without which mathematics and physics couldn’t exist. There’s a distinct feeling of calculation and computation, nothing knee-jerk about it. But reor can also mean believe, think, suppose, imagine, or deem, words that veer suddenly from the comforting arena of facts and figures, equations and certainties. Why has this part of reason taken over? Why is there so much bullshit rhetoric flying that I can’t rely on anything to assess the real risk to my daughter?

We all want answers to life’s burning questions, but now – if you can’t discover them by empirical, scientific, or logical means – we’re fine with just making them up. You know, the whole “alternative facts” paradigm. Why do people get addicted? What causes bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.? Should we force people with serious brain health conditions to be medicated? Who should pay for health care, and how?

Never mind that these questions involve complex issues that require investigation, discourse, and compromise, and that there is no “single best answer.” Never mind that trying to do the most good for all while harming the least was a supposed founding principle of our country. We can just make up the answer and go from there. What’s important is how we feel about it. Facts can just go by the wayside.

My daughter’s r stance of resigned acceptance, shared by her friends on the naval base as well as her Chamorro co-workers, reminded me of Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” When I recalled those famous lines – Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die, – that he wrote about the soldiers in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, I went back and revisited the poem. This battle was a suicidal charge by British Calvary during the Crimean War, and 257 of the 637 men involved were killed or wounded. In the full stanza, the preceding lines include: “. . . tho’ the soldier knew  Some one had blunder’d.”

Someone had blundered. Yup, Squeaky and the people of the Micronesian archipelago know – deep in their hearts – that their fate rests heavily on reasonable, rational decisions. One big boo-boo and it could be game over. Words like haywire, crazy, absurd, and preposterous come to mind when I consider the power players involved, but I won’t bother to look to the etymologies for deeper meanings. The current definitions speak volumes and are totally apropos here.

Blunder’s root has to do with blindness though (see February 2, 2015 Archives), and I’m sure you can imagine my daughter and her friends closing not just their eyes, but plenty of other senses, as they go about their day trying to ignore the albatross around their necks. Just like the rest of us here on the mainland, as we look at statistics on deaths of despair and opioid overdoses, shaking our heads and waiting for someone or something to save us. We envision Walter Cronkite arising from his grave, but won’t hold our breath waiting for him.

As our mothers would say, there’s simply no reason for the type of polarizing, destructive behaviors that permeate the American culture today. I return to the dictionary for guidance: Reasonable (adjective), Having sound judgment; fair and sensible, as much as is appropriate or fair; moderate; fairly good, and finally, average. To my daughter and all of us struggling today, I echo the wish of my old high school classmate: Hope all is reasonable. . .

For a very long read by Kurt Andersen that includes some thoughts on reason, go here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/how-america-lost-its-mind/534231/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re: Solace for the Solitary

The opportunity to help adults looking for work unexpectedly came my way a few weeks ago through my town library. I created a worksheet for what we’re calling a wellness consultation. Each patron gets an hour of time to talk with me about reducing stress and maintaining or enhancing brain health. The consult starts with a brief wellbeing score based on questions about how you’re feeling and thinking. After that, we move to a personal strengths survey, and then discuss a person’s PSP.

The PSP, or Personal Support Posse, is something I created two years ago when I was writing about the importance of people who helped me adapt to depression and loss (see April 2015 archives). I put six blanks on the flowsheet where patrons can list members of their PSP. Although I haven’t done too many consults yet, preliminary results show that those who easily list four or five persons they can rely on have a much better sense of wellbeing than those who struggle to come up with even one name.

Yes, for a few patrons, I noticed a blank and somewhat fearful look come over their face when I asked about their PSP. It took me back to when the only person I relied upon for support was my teenage son. I was now interacting with people whose circumstances were very familiar, because I’d been there too. We were both staring at those six blank lines. I couldn’t help but wonder, How could I help fill them in?

These people appeared to be leading solitary lives, although not necessarily lonely. One woman shared her satisfaction with solitariness, stating that she was a massive introvert. But there’s solitary, and then there’s isolated. Isolating oneself when jobless wasn’t going to get her anywhere, and she knew it. I began to feel that I was more desperate than her to fill in those lines.

Solitary’s English root is sole, which itself has different roots depending on the usage. The adjective form (e.g., she is the sole survivor) arose from the Latin solus, meaning alone, lonely, and even forsaken. The noun form (e.g., the sole of the foot) is from the Latin solum, meaning the lowest part of a thing, the base, or the foundation. What a difference a letter makes! And solum may be related to the Sanskrit root sar-, meaning to guard or make whole. I see a connection here though, since unhealthy solitary behaviors result in an ungrounding; they separate us from other humans and from our foundation as a social species. No matter what, lonely and forsaken people need to be brought back into the fold. They need others to help make them feel whole again.

We all know how common it is for people with serious brain health issues and addiction to feel or be isolated. They may isolate themselves, or we do it for them by criminalizing their behavior and incarcerating them. Regardless, isolate actually arose not from the roots of sole, but from the Latin insula, an island or isle (and is related to salum, open sea, and sal, salt). An insula was also a house for poor people, distinct from the domus, a mansion of the rich. This begs the question, How insular are we when it comes to attending to those who suffer? The dictionary on my laptop defines insular as “ignorant or uninterested in. . . ideas or people outside one’s own experience.” Is it just me, or does insularity seem to have reached epic proportions these days?

Now don’t get me wrong. Most of the patrons were able to put names in at least two lines with confidence, and some even went all the way to six. But of course, it was the “loners” that caught at my heart. It struck me that they needed a little bit of another “sol-“ word: solace. I assumed this word had to be related to the others, but, well, wrong again! It’s got its own root, the Latin verb solor, which means to comfort, lighten, and soothe. The PIE root, *sele-, means to be of good mood, and is related to “silly.” There’s no silliness whatsoever in the search for secure and fulfilling employment. But to me, an important need while searching is a PSP that you can count on.

After wellbeing checks and a PSP list, we moved down the flowsheet to stress relievers and pride generators. I wanted people to realize not only that they must have ways to reduce stress, but that they needed to remember their accomplishments. This latter was something I lost track of when I was sick. One woman seemed stunned when it came to the pride part. At first, she said she wasn’t proud of a thing, but then realized that the caregiving she’s been providing to loved ones for years showed her fortitude, generosity, and persistence. I reminded her that many don’t possess these virtues. She seemed comforted by that; let’s say I had the chance to give her a little solace. But of all the things on that flowsheet, I knew it was her PSP that will get her safely to the finish line.

You can take a brief wellbeing test here: http://www.experiential-researchers.org/instruments/leijssen/WEMWBS.pdf

The average score in unselected Western European populations is around fifty. I took it last week and scored a 42. This simply means that, like many others, I have room for improvement in feelings and thoughts. Six years ago I wouldn’t have been able to even fill out the form.

Too Tired to Care?

At another pop-up fair this weekend, my next-door vendor was a lovely jewelry maker who had a story to tell. She was yet another woman with an abusive ex-partner. This lends credence to the going statistic that about one in four women experience this at some point in their lives. If you recall, I am one of them as well (my first ex-husband was a control freak who also hit me). But this woman, too, had moved on.

I didn’t pry into the details of her story. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve heard stories from the pure psychological to the jail/hospital/fractured bones version, and everything in between. What I do know is that this type of treatment wears the victim down. It results in tremendous fatigue on many levels. When the fatigue itself becomes unbearable, you reach the point where you find your way out.

And then there’s the other type of tiredness, the one we’ve come to call compassion fatigue.  Also known as “secondary traumatic stress,” it is described as a gradual lessening of compassion over time that happens to people who care for trauma victims. On the Wiki entry, the list of potential sufferers includes (but is not limited to): nurses, therapists, teachers, first responders, animal welfare workers, and anyone who cares for people with a chronic illness. Who’s not on that list? It’s said that the way to reduce compassion fatigue is to practice self-care, reduce anxiety, and seek social and emotional support. A tall order these days, don’t you think?

My point is that fatigue is ubiquitous. The biostimulant market for over-the-counter supplements alone is said to be around $3 billion in the US today, and that doesn’t even count the caffeine in all the stuff we drink. Fatigue’s proximal Latin root, fatigo, means to weary or tire someone or something, and that word apparently arose from fatisci, meaning to crack or split. We all know this feeling. We’re tired to the point of “cracking up;” we are so exhausted we feel like “something’s got to give;” we’re at our “breaking point.”

What happens then? Nine times out of ten, when overly-tiring circumstances overwhelm us, who do we reach out to for support? The very people who are already burdened by compassion fatigue. Is it because these people reside closer to the generous end on the self-giving scale? We’re certainly not going to spill the beans to uncaring friends and family, to those we’ve already judged (either by experience or assumption) to be dismissive, cold, and disparaging.

How many times have we asked, Why can’t we all just care about each other? My own recent interest in the concept of suffering is almost — but not quite – surpassed by my interest in caring. And this wood too, holds its own dark secret, because the root of care is the Proto-Germanic *karo, which means lament, and the Gothic kara, meaning sorrow or trouble. The PIE root is *gar-, which is to cry out or scream. Having been born from such tragic and dismal parents, is it any wonder that caring is so hard?

When I was very sick, my circle of support evaporated. At one point, I leaned hard on an eenie weenie group who managed to take on some of my grief and woe. As time went by, the circle enlarged, and things got much more bearable. And, little by little, I noticed myself reaching out to help others; I now had enough energy for pay back and pay forward. This arose both from the dissipation of my own suffering, as well as from a deep sense of gratitude for the people who stood by me. This process is difficult to describe. We look to contemporary spiritual leaders for help, and yet these principles have been propagated and written about for millennia. What makes us such bad students of these ways?

The path to caring without becoming fatigued, on an individual basis, involves a mindful detachment that is a major theme of Buddhist teachings. Yes, I’m talking the Dalai Lama here. But an important component is to first be kind to yourself. I was incapable of assuming this posture a decade ago, but putting more effort into self-forgiveness was a huge first step.

I think of how my internal suffering built up back then until I reached the breaking point. I wish I had known how to manage it better in the early stages. I see the accumulation of despair in retrospect; the image is of a teaspoon of poison that I swallowed every day for months and maybe years, until it almost did me in. Our systems are capable of clearing the poison, but not when we take in too much. What if others less burdened had taken a spoonful here or there? I would have ingested less. Collectively, we would have processed it. This mutual process can prevent us from reaching the breaking point of fatigue, and can dampen the noise that arises when caring seems to have disappeared.

 

On Scrutinizing Rags

This week I finished a short memoir by the driver of the four-man bobsled team that won gold for the US at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada. It was the first gold we won in that sport in more than a half-century. I remember those games. I was still living in Buffalo, and was massively depressed. A short year later I would sign myself into the psych ward. I remember watching the games in a kind of stupor. I had no capacity to be entertained by anything.

Getting back to the young man, during the years leading up to the win, he was going blind from keratoconus, a congenital condition that thickens the cornea. The definitive treatment –  corneal transplants – would have taken away his Olympic dreams. He describes the burden of keeping this terrible secret to himself, and of getting so despondent at one point that he swigs Jack Daniels and swallows prescription sleeping pills in a hotel room, only to wake up groggy in the morning. He came to regard this failed attempt as a miracle. He ends up getting a non-surgical treatment, winning the gold, and at the end of the book is still very much involved in US bobsledding.

This Hollywood story was inspiring, and I thought he would make a great guest for my radio show. I can’t describe the shock when, after googling him, I discovered that he took his life two short months ago. No matter that he was still coaching the current Olympic team; despair intervened, and he was found in his room at the Lake Placid training center. Alcohol and prescription sleeping pills were in his blood. He was thirty-seven years old.

His suffering must have been intense. In the book, published five years before his death, he freely admits to feeling depressed on and off, and spends a few paragraphs on the whiskey/pills episode, but pays short shrift to his mind demons. He describes the inner pressure of hiding his impending blindness – including to his close family – and the difficulties of pursuing training in an Olympic sport that Americans only briefly notice every four years, but gives us only a glimpse of his internal anguish and hopelessness.

I closed the volume feeling he was basically an upbeat kind of guy, while not really comprehending what led up to the first suicide attempt. I wanted to know more, and felt he’d been holding back. I wanted to know how he was doing now. Men approach depression and despair differently than women. They bury it deeper and longer. And they “succeed” in dying at higher rates than women when they decide to act.

The memoir I read was about blindness and an obscure Olympic sport, not a brain health issue. Memoirists are cautioned not to whine, and are advised to put a positive spin on things. But why? The stories we tell our children – like Grimm’s fairy tales, laced with cruelty, perfidy, and violence – aren’t ever this filtered. Putting your life story on paper involves self-reflection, but to be comprehensive requires self-scrutiny. I wondered whether this process may have contributed to his imbalance.

To scrutinize is to “examine closely and thoroughly.” It’s Latin root, scrutor, means exactly the same, and was translated by one online dictionary as “to search even to the rags.” Even to the rags. I wondered how hard it was for this young man to examine his own rags for their meanings and lessons.

I’ve never lived without rags. I was raised on them. Every Saturday morning, my Austrian mother would wake my sisters and me from sleep with a command-like shout up the stairs: Come on girls, lots of work to do. I remember how much I hated that summons. But we were called to clean, and that included washing the upstairs and downstairs linoleum floors on our hands and knees with a bucket of soapy water and a big rag, usually part of an old towel.

What do you see when you think of rags? My mind conjures up a pile of oily, greasy fabric remnants, perhaps stiff with un-use and drizzled with spider webs, wedged in a filthy corner at a mom-and-pop garage. But then I think of my own rag bag, with its fragments all clean and ready for use: the old beach towel; my favorite flannel nightgown; the soft pastel bedsheet from my kids’ cribs. Oh, the memories they hold! And their ongoing utility, their continuing functionality! Now there’s a modern miracle!

Think of how much waste we’d prevent if we all went back to using rags again. In our quest for mere convenience, we ignore the valuable lessons and benefits of castoffs. How often do we do this to actual people? More often then we realize, perhaps.

I see the bobsled driver examining his own life and trying to make sense of what he saw as his own scrapheap. I wonder what took him from a seeming point of optimism and hope to that place where none of us really wants to go. I mourn his final decision, but in knowing that he fought the good fight for almost four decades, I still see him shining in Olympic gold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Pathologizing Defects, Real or Perceived

When I talk to brain health researchers or practitioners (aka therapists) on my radio show, I ask them to comment on the fact that roughly twenty percent of incoming college freshmen are taking a pill for a brain issue. The major “diagnoses” are anxiety and depression. These are not kids popping Strattera or stimulants to keep up with college demands. No, they’ve already entered The System, and are taking something to balance activated/deactivated states. Most guests offer vague or evasive answers, which makes me wonder about all the prevention-speak that’s bandied about. It’s also pretty frustrating.

This week, I came across a blog post about Millennials being less keen on addictive substances than previous generations. Large studies show less use of alcohol and tobacco in high school. People who study this ascribe the drop to things like obsession with selfies (taken in non-altered states), academic pressure, existing anxiety and depression (bingo!), cocooning (living at home affords fewer opportunities to misbehave), and addiction to technology.

I looked into some of these “studies,” and believe that the numbers on high schoolers using less booze and tobacco are on firm ground. What clouds the whole field is – of course – the narcotic/opioid issue. But I end up asking myself: were just as many kids anxious and depressed a generation or two ago? And did we/they just use booze and cigarettes to “self-medicate,” whereas today kids end up getting therapy or a pill?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that it bothers me that so many imbalanced youth  end up being regarded in terms of pathology. Can’t we back up a bit, and try to figure out why all this anxiety and depression is showing up, and ask ourselves what we’re going to do about it?

The psycho-industrial complex is growing because of shortages, either real or perceived. We need more therapists, is a common theme, along with We need better treatment, and We need more research. Now I happen to agree with the latter two statements, but not the first. Couldn’t existing therapists be redistributed so that people whose brains are very imbalanced get access first? Couldn’t the others be helped by friends, family, and loved ones? Could we try to make a dent in over-pathologizing normal human states?

I’m looking for a reductionist answer here, something simple that involves common sense and is amenable to analysis using big data methods, but when we can’t even agree on the definitions of emotion, feeling, and mood, how can this be accomplished? Let’s not even go to measurement issues. No matter what, the concept of pathology keeps gnawing at me.

Pathology is defined as the study of the causes and effects of diseases. Although this umbrellas all illness, the verb form  somehow carved out a niche all for itself: to pathologize is to regard or treat someone or something as psychologically abnormal or unhealthy. We don’t talk about pathologizing breasts or hearts or livers, just our psyches. And the business of psychology doesn’t grow without it.

Pathology’s origin is Greek pathos, meaning suffering, from the PIE root *kwent(h)-, to suffer. Now I’m not about diminishing the suffering that people with brain health issues and addiction endure, but I worry about labeling human conditions in a persistently negative way. Along with the diagnosis of anxiety or depression (or both) comes the natural question of, What’s wrong with me? It speaks of lack, and of viewing yourself as defective.

Defect’s rich Latin root brings up all the things that arise when dealing with a serious brain issue. Deficio means to separate one’s self, or withdraw, as well as to desert, fail, be wanting, and even disappear. It’s the negative form of facio, to make or cause. Unless and until we cease viewing those who suffer as wanting or failing in basic human attributes or endeavors, they will continue to disappear: by allowing their addictions to consume them; by taking their own lives; by buying into the false belief that they’re “less than.”

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about suffering: how we approach it (or don’t); how to reduce and share it; how we can acknowledge it and discover hidden treasures and lessons. I wrote about this a few months’ back (see April, 2017 archive), when I concluded that the generosity of others who allowed me to share my suffering was essential in moving forward to a more balanced state. I try to talk to my own Millennials about suffering, but they’re too young to want to look it square in the face. I remember when I felt that way about it, too.

Are modern times really so dreadful that the brain health of future generations is in serious jeopardy? I have my doubts. As they say, history repeats itself. We Boomers had our share of issues back when I was in high school, and yes, we used booze, and cigarettes, and the rebellious precepts of the hippie movement, to deal with it. We didn’t pathologize; it wasn’t in vogue. But those of us who’ve jumped through the hoops of suffering know that sharing isn’t as horrible as it’s cracked up to be.

The blog post about Millennial substance use can be found here: https://medium.com/neodotlife/millennials-and-drugs-23aa24b8fb1d

A reasonable survey of drug use in US youth today can be found here: http://www.monitoringthefuture.org//pubs/monographs/mtf-vol1_2016.pdf

 

 

 

Raising Woodpecker Awareness

I sat at another all-day market again last week, but the weather cooperated and I didn’t get heat-sick. Because Positive PullsTM are assembled by hand by people diagnosed with autism, I use that as an incentive for selling. In the end, twenty percent of the purchase price goes to the autism organization. I walk away with thirty percent, so I’d say that’s a pretty fair deal.

As always, I encountered special people with special stories. Pitching the autism angle, I sold a book to a woman whose own son has the condition. She was proud of the fact that he just managed to get a high school degree, albeit at the age of twenty-one. He eventually joined her at my tent, and I can only describe him as a young man with “special needs.”  My heart ached with the realization of what this mother went through, and what she faces in the years to come. As she left, she lifted up the back of her shirt to show me a tattoo she commissioned to celebrate her son’s achievements. It was a butterfly, wrapped in a ribbon consisting of puzzle pieces, with a single word in the middle of the design: aware.

Of all the words one could choose to memorialize a struggling child’s challenges and accomplishments, I don’t think aware would have even been on my radar. But when she showed me the tattoo, I instantly understood. From early on, she had to be aware of his every need, his anomalies, his very different way of communicating. As he grew, she had to make others aware of the situation too, and find the help he needed to progress. Hence, the butterfly, to represent the transformation she envisioned for him. Hence, the puzzle pieces, locking together to form a ribbon of love and support.

How many things was I unaware of as I went through my own parenting, working, and eventual illness and loss? It’s too overwhelming to think about. Aware’s root is the German gewahr, from a Proto-Germanic root *waraz, which means cautious or wary. The PIE root, *wer-, means to perceive or watch out for. Awareness, or the infamous raising thereof, does make us more perceptive, and capable of watching out for something. In my research, I learned that *wer- is also the root of words like beware (makes sense), steward (ditto), and warehouse (in terms of watching over something), but also hardware and software.

This raises the question of how aware (or not) we are of the impact of technology on basic human traits like mutual respect, understanding, support, and the simple act of communicating. Because we seem to be losing track of the value these attributes bring to the table, we end up with people suffering from brain health issues and addiction wandering in our midst, hidden in plain sight. I began to envision that woman’s tattoo displayed everywhere, and going viral.

I spoke with my sister-in-law Valerie, who just returned from visiting my daughter Squeaky in Guam. She filled me in on the news, and on how she’s been handling her own issues relating to the recent death of her mother, as well as a relationship break-up. From my perspective, she’s doing very well, holding down her job and single motherhood while using tools she needs to maintain her own brain health. I was sitting on my tiny patio, and as we spoke, something flying low in the sky caught my eye. I believe it was a pileated woodpecker, an unusual sight for sure.

Now the woodpecker is known for the rapid drumbeat of its drilling, and was honored by ancient Greeks to sit on the throne of Zeus, the god of thunder. It’s all about the noise. But to Native Americans, it represented the very heartbeat of Mother Earth herself. In many cultures, the red color of the head symbolized awakening of new mental activities that result in heightened discrimination and perception. In short, being more aware.

Its pattern of movement is often flying and coasting, flying and coasting, rather unique in the bird world.  It reminds us to find our own rhythms and paths, and use them to move forward, even if it’s in fits and starts. I see Valerie using this wisdom now, and am sure that the mother of the autistic man does the same as she puts the puzzle pieces together for her son.

Our culture may wish to reduce awareness of the struggles of those with brain health issues or addiction, but we all know this can’t be swept under the rug any more. These people are following their own flight path, but that doesn’t mean we should value them less. We don’t need to be wary of them, or warehouse them in prisons or cookie-cutter rehab programs that make things worse or don’t live up to expectations.

The mother I met at the market, and Valerie, and the pileated woodpecker, came to remind me of the wisdom and benefits of awareness, which, at the end of the day, is just another way of being mindful. We can connect to others’ heartbeats, no matter how bizarre, to help make each other’s flights a little smoother along the way.

 

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. . .