Not Tonight

January 13, 2016



Tonight I saved a man's life. I didn't mean to. It just happened. I was heading home on the interstate and veering to the right to take my exit. But something stopped me.

A man stopped me.

He walked out in front of me. He raised his hands in surrender, sat down, and then lay down, arms and legs outstretched.

As soon as I realized what was happening I laid on my horn hoping he'd somehow snap back into reality and get up again. He didn't. In fact, he didn't move at all.

When I realized this was not an accident and he was not getting up, I threw my car in park, leaving only about one car length from his feet. I hit my hazard lights and called 911.

At the same time, a young man pulled past him and parked a car length beyond his head; he got out and raised his phone to his ear, no doubt, calling 911 as well.

After being put on hold, I finally reached a dispatcher who assured me that police and ambulance were on the way. She advised me to stay safely inside my car until they arrived.

She advised me to leave the man lying there waiting to die.

I didn't wait in my car. Neither did two other concerned drivers. The line of traffic had stalled briefly before resuming at break neck speed beside us. One woman stopped ahead and to the right of the young man I previously mentioned. She got out and grabbed a blanket from her trunk. She draped it over the man still splayed out on the ground. The other women parked to the left of the man. She got out and started talking to him. She seemed to have some medical training.

The four of us, strangers who shared one moment of potential horror together, waited in virtual silence for the sirens to arrive. While we waited, we had come to the conclusion that the man had some sort of psychological issues, possibly delusions. He had quietly asked to be taken to our local mental health hospital but otherwise had said nothing. His eyes rolled back into his head yet his entire body remained alarmingly still.

The police finally arrived. Finally.

I thought, "Thank god they're here. This man needs help." How foolish I was to think they would be there to offer care.

No, it seemed they were there to clear the traffic.

Once they'd determined he was likely a homeless man, possibly drunk, they frisked him, rolled him over harshly and threw handcuffs on him.

The man. Never. Moved.

He was the same man who I had watched try to kill himself only moments before.

And they handcuffed him.

I couldn't keep quiet. "Did he resist arrest?" I asked.

"No, but he smelled like alcohol. He's homeless and has mental issues so he's probably dangerous."

I bit down on my lip hard. "But did he resist? Why did you have to cuff him?" I said quietly, more to myself than to the threatening state trooper. I certainly didn't want cuffs on my own wrists.

I could kick myself now. I should have spoken up louder. I know the others around me were thinking the same thing I was: Why did you have to do that?

I caught eyes with one of the other Good Samaritans and she looked shocked too. Why would they not talk to him first? Why did they have to assume, though they had NO reason to, that he was dangerous?

The man had just decided he wanted to end his life moments before. He was already broken.

Why break him further?

The police officers dragged the man by the arms to one of their cruisers. He never twitched, never flinched, he barely breathed. But he was cuffed, because he might be dangerous.

Tonight I watched a man try to kill himself. And because I was watching the road, I didn't kill him.

But tonight I saw that same man get treated like he was less than human.

He won't die tonight.

Not tonight.

But what about tomorrow?

Renewed for Another Season, the Best One Yet



December 31, 2015

My husband and I enjoy binge-watching highly-rated TV series that we somehow missed. We've watched the entire series of 24 as well as Breaking Bad years past their air-dates. I love to analyze the story arcs, the characters, basically the writing itself, and so does my husband, whose first career was as a writer in Hollywood.

Our current series addiction is The West Wing and the writing of Aaron Sorkin.

I've decided two things based on my exposure to this incredible show. First, Jed Bartlett really SHOULD be our president. I love him. Seriously, he would be perfect, but that's a blog post for another time.

And second, our family's life could be re-written as a TV series.

No, really. Think about it. If you've ever watched an entire television series from start to finish, you'll see what I mean.

Season One of a TV Show: That's when you get to know the characters, learn about the setting, and you basically discover the main conflict, right?

So in our family, Season One would be all about my son's mental health crises and eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder. There would be mis-diagnoses at first. Denial, misunderstandings, but by the season finale, you know the deal. Bipolar Disorder is the antagonist.

Second and Third Seasons of a TV Show: These are when the characters each take on their own mini-conflicts and the audience learns more about each character and how each subplot fits into the larger dynamic of the show itself.

So in our family, Season Two would be all about my older son's denial and self-medicating behaviors, my younger son's own denial (like his rebound to high-achieving academics despite his brother's struggles), and my own diagnosis and treatment issues. Season Three would be when my husband Tom comes into our lives, eventually moving in with us and his own story meshes into each of ours. Remember, the main conflict is still my older son's illness and how we are all affected by it.

Fourth Season of a TV Show: Here's where the television studios really start to take chances. The show has grown in popularity and they want to try some new things. Maybe some actors are demanding bigger paychecks or they're threatening to leave. Those who stay may decide they want to direct some episodes or they may suddenly appear with producer credits. Some are even killed off and replaced by different characters the audience must get to know. The writing takes some turns in the fourth season. There are flashback episodes, dream sequence episodes and maybe trips to Hawaii where the leads get lost in a cave. Some of these episodes may really suck. The characters may suffer and the audience may fear the series is doomed. And it may well be. Season Four is just about the time when risk becomes a player in the show's vitality. Sometimes the risks are worth it, and other times they lead to cancellation.

So in our family, Season Four has to be the Incarceration of my Son. Nothing more to say here. It's at least a season's worth of total setting shift, focus shift, attention shift. Risk. Pain. Fear. Conflict. You name it. We had it.

If you're lucky enough to make it past Season Four, there is a Season Five, maybe Season Six, and possibly even a Season Seven. These final seasons share one main thread: the search for resolution of the main conflict. Sometimes there are wild twists and turns, but you know if you've been on board since Season One, you're not giving up now. You're determined to see it through. As each character's subplots are stitched back up, the bigger conflict is slowly sewn together too. Season Finale: Resolution at last.

So in our family, our last few seasons would, of course, involve the resolving of our subplots: my younger son decides on a college and heads off to the freshman dorms; Tom and I return to Las Vegas for the third time and finally get married while we're there; and, after two and a half years, my older son is released from prison, committed to making a better life for himself.

I haven't actually seen the final seasons of The West Wing yet. 

And I haven't seen our series finale either. 

But there is good news on both fronts.

I trust in the writing of Aaron Sorkin. He crafts stories we can all understand. We feel inspired because, simply, his words capture the truth.

And I trust in the determination of my son. He envisions better days ahead. He is inspired to resolve his conflict. To take control of the writing; to take it away from bipolar disorder and bring it back to his eager hands so he may discover his own truth in the next season of his life.








The Difference One Word Makes



December 6, 2015

Three years ago, when I started this anonymous blog, I wanted to call it "Hopeful Mom" because I thought that's what I needed: Hope. And I figured if anyone else ever read any of my posts, they might need hope too. So it seemed like the right title.

 But that blog name was already taken so my husband suggested that I add "Still" to the beginning to become Still Hopeful Mom.

It's funny how a name that wasn't even my first choice could be such a profound and essential part of this hellish journey.

Through the emotional struggles of my son's mental illness diagnosis followed by my own, as my son's addiction and denial spiraled out of control, and ultimately, during his two and a half years of incarceration, I have clung desperately to those three little words: Still Hopeful Mom.

If my blog name had simply been "Hopeful Mom" I'm fairly certain I would have bailed on this whole blogging thing long ago.

Because, let's face it, being hopeful isn't always easy. The fact that I called myself Still Hopeful Mom added an element of commitment that I may have otherwise not recognized, much less honored.

There have been so many times that I didn't feel hopeful at all:

When my son shut me out of his life, ignoring my calls and attempts to help him with his illness.

When he lied, when he stole, when he promised and promised and promised but couldn't ever hold up his end of the bargains.

When I was able to treat my own illness effectively with proper medication and therapy, but wasn't able to convince my son to seek treatment for his illness. The airplane oxygen mask metaphor may have been appropriate, but it offered little comfort in this scenario.

When I waited for that phone call that I knew would someday come, saying either "Your son has been arrested," or "Your son is dead."

When that phone call came.

When I had to bring my younger son to visit his older brother in prison.

When the holidays came and went the first year.

When my son spent his first New Year's Eve behind bars naked and alone in a padded room. He had faked being suicidal out of desperation after learning of the plot his co-defendant's posse had to jump him. Because despite my son's complete cooperation with the prosecution in his case, their promise to keep my son safe from his co-defendant had somehow been overlooked so he spent weeks fearing for his life.

When more than a year went by before he was actually sentenced and permitted to move to the safer, more stable side of the prison.

When issuing my son's sentence and denying our request for Mental Health Court, the judge said, he's "going to have to do it himself."

When summer vacation came and went.

As did the holidays a second time.

And then another summer come and gone.

When the date passed for his release to house arrest with not a word from anyone.

When he was told the date had been a clerical error and he was to serve another 4 weeks behind bars.

When what we thought would become house arrest was actually work release in a halfway house that had the reputation of being extremely dangerous and less than organized.

So many times I lacked "hope" but I somehow mustered the strength to remain "Still Hopeful Mom."

And then last Friday, I received this phone call that I will paraphrase here as I do not remember the details too clearly:

(Since I saw it was my son's attorney, I stepped into the hallway outside my classroom to answer.)

Him: Hello, sorry to bother you on a work day.

Me: No bother. What's up?

Him: Well, I have some good news. The motion to modify has been granted to Level 3--he's coming home...probably today.

Me: WHAT???? (My knees buckled and I bent in half at the waist. The giant floor tile squares began to swirl.)

Him: I'm serious. He's coming home today. He won't have house arrest. He'll just have probation.

Me: (words words words followed by some other words that I don't even remember uttering. I was in total and complete shock.)

Him: (something congratulatory and some kind of good-bye)

And in a matter of hours, my son was home. He was HOME.

It was that HOPE that saved us...It was HOPE that got me to that hallway on the phone not believing the good news.

It was that HOPE that kept us slogging forward into darkness, squinting to see just a sliver of light.

It was HOPE.

Now, as we put the pieces of his life, our lives back together, this mom will rely a little more on that HOPE.

STILL.

Jake, me, and Luke, 2015. Reunited at last. 



Hazard Lights Blinking on the Shoulder of the Road, Two Worlds Collided, Finally



November 5, 2015

On my way north toward Connecticut yesterday afternoon, I got the call. The one I'd been waiting for.

My son had finally been released from prison after two and a half years and had arrived at the halfway house to begin his six month sentence.

I expected the irony. Predicted it, actually.

At the very time I was driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike to attend presenter training for a youth violence prevention program, one that I never would have even known about had my own son not suffered from a serious mental health crisis years ago, I missed the chance to go see him in person without prison glass between us for the first time in nearly three years.

I saw it coming. As clear as if it were a vision in a crystal ball, I knew it would happen this way.

He called and my Bluetooth sent his voice swimming into every corner of my little sedan. He said, "I'm here, Mom. Can you bring me my stuff now? There are some rules though. Can you write this all down?"

I pulled over, hit my hazard lights, and grabbed a pen. On the back of the printed out Google Maps directions to Sandy Hook, Connecticut, I jotted down the details he listed off to me:

"I can have razors, but no liquid soap. It has to be bars.
I can only have a travel size toothpaste. Nothing bigger.
I need a towel and two wash clothes, and they have to be white.
I can't have more than nine pairs of anything, no more than nine pairs of socks, or t-shirts, or pants. No more than nine, Mom."

And the list went on.

I scribbled it all down in my purple pen, the one I use to grade English papers. My handwriting was haphazard, frenzied; I made giant circles and squiggly lines pointing to notes about what my husband needed to remove from the pre-packed duffel I'd left in our hallway and what he needed to add to it.

My little blue sedan sat along the New Jersey Turnpike for what felt like hours and only seconds all at once. It was as if somehow time had stood on its end. Tilted slightly, almost falling over, but not quite.

If you scroll back to my very first blog entry here, you'll find it's dated December 2012, and you will see something.

You will see that my first blog entry was inspired by the tragic events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Two years after my son walked out my door in 2010, the tragedy of Sandy Hook finally WOKE ME UP and MADE ME SEE what lies I'd been telling myself.  What shame I'd allowed myself to live with. What stigma I'd hidden behind for so long.

At that moment yesterday afternoon on the shoulder of the road, two worlds finally collided.

My son's entire world --the one of self-hatred, of self-medication, of self-destruction had finally collapsed, completely deflated.

And my entire world--the one of a mother's fear, the one of a mother's blame, the one of a mother's regret had finally imploded, too.

And yesterday, in the middle of New Jersey somewhere, our two worlds, my son's and mine, began, at that very moment, to breathe life again, renewed with the power of hope, the strength of acceptance, and the force of love.

Do I regret my choice to travel to Sandy Hook, Connecticut to attend a two-day training session so that I can make school-wide presentations, teaching students how to "Say Something" and prevent school violence, identify kids in crisis, secure safer, healthier school communities?

No, I don't.

Do I wish that instead of my husband, I had been the one to deliver the duffel bag and give that first real hug to my son last night? Of course I do.

But if given the choice again, I would do the very same thing.

Two worlds, our worlds collided yesterday, even if we didn't touch each other at all.

Today- An Unlikely Day for Hope

November 2, 2015



Today is a strange day. 
So many things are happening and not happening today.

I wrote a YA novel called A Brother's Oath and it's part of an international writing contest called PitchWars hosted by Brenda-Drake.com. Today, well tonight at midnight, my "pitch" and the first page of my book "go live" on a website to be viewed by literary agents looking for new talent. For the next couple of days, the agents will peruse the "pitches" and select some to pursue for potential representation. So, basically, I may get an agent out of this. Even if I don't, I still won because I was matched with Trisha Leaver , YA author extraordinaire. The impact that her guidance has made on my book is immeasurable. I am humbled by her kindness and wisdom.  

So, yes, today I am grateful for her help. I am hopeful for the possibilities of landing an agent, but today I am also incredibly sad.

Today was supposed to be the day my son came home from prison.

We had first thought it would be Oct. 8, 2015, a date he was given by prison personnel in error. Then, it was changed to November 2, 2015. Today. 

Only, the conditions of his release were called into question.  We had been under the assumption (because my son was told this) that he'd qualify for "house arrest" instead of "work release halfway-house" placement because 1) the halfway house is full and 2) his home is "a good one".

We took the steps required to file for our home's clearance in the program. My husband brought documents to the designated office and signed commitment letters stating we were willing hosts for my son.

But we were wrong.

One week ago, they told him he was going to the work release halfway-house after all. Oh, and they told him he can't get a job while he's there because "they don't do that anymore." 

It's a good thing I stopped trying to make sense of DOC operations and "regulations" long ago. Their "procedures" are nothing more than moving targets of arbitrary rules, random dates and times, contradicting policies and ambiguous practices. 

So we took more lumps. We acknowledged the facts of the situation. He was NOT coming home just yet. He was going to live in a halfway house for up to 6 months before he could come home.  We called our attorney and asked him to do what he could, and he will, though he's been honest that the odds of changing his placement are grim.

It took the weekend for me to stop crying.

Then today came. The day he was to be transferred to the halfway house facility.  The day I would get to see him, touch him, hug him, without a thick bulletproof glass jammed between us.

According to his official documents, his Level 5 time (prison) expired at 11:59pm last night. He was told the Level 4 time (halfway house) began at midnight.  He expected to be moved this morning. So did we. Seemed logical...

But this morning came and went. 

I made my run to Target to pick up some more things he'll need, like shaving cream and socks. I held my phone in my hand all morning but it never rang.

Finally, he called me at 1:00pm today.

He had just been told the following concerning his transfer, "Oh, we only do runs to the Plummer Center on Wednesday mornings. That's when you'll go."

Um, ok.

THAT would have been nice to know sometime BEFORE NOW. On the day my son was sentenced, our attorney said something to me I'll never forget. We were talking about when he might possibly, actually, realistically be released and our attorney said this, "I'll never understand prison math."

Neither will I.  

So here we are again: in the perpetual state of WAITING. In the strange, familiar place of happenings and non-happenings where things may be predicted but should not, can not be expected, or God-forbid assumed.

Where 
even the 
littlest 
sense 
of hope 
slips 
through 
your fingers.





My Lemon Tree


Oct. 18, 2015

They said, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

But, nobody ever told me what to do when life gives you a lemon tree. One that keeps sprouting new lemons over and over again. Season after season.

Over the last few years, I've gotten pretty good at making lemonade, tweaking the recipe for just the right combination of tangy and sweet, hoping to squelch the bitterness completely.

I stirred together my first pitcher of lemonade in December 2012, when I began writing this blog.

Desperate for a way to unload the pain of mothering a son who rejected my mothering, I yearned to reach him but he had spiraled so deeply into his own mental illness, he wanted nothing to do with me.

I'd been discarded with the lemon rinds and the seeds.

I made pitcher after pitcher of lemonade throughout the next couple of years, sharing more about our story, responding to readers with similar stories, and realizing that what I was talking about might actually be helping people.

But one thing bothered me with all the batches of lemonade I'd mixed together. No matter how hard I stirred, it was still so thick, so murky. Finally, I managed to whip up a batch that we could all see through.  Into the compost heap, with the rinds and the seeds, I threw out my pseudonym, Still Hopeful Mom.

No more hiding in the cloudy bitterness of anonymity anymore. No more hypocrisy. I had been talking about ending the stigma of mental illness but I hadn't been brave enough to tell anyone my real name.

I don't hide anymore. You can see right through the glass pitcher at who I am, Annie Slease. That batch of lemonade was especially sweet. Not just because there would be no more hiding, but because the supportive responses from friends and family were astounding.

All the while, my older son has been making lemonade too, from his prison cell. He's taking medication for his bipolar illness, and he's educated himself on his condition. He now understands the impact that his denial can have on himself and those he cares about, and he has vowed to never let that happen again. His lemonade is especially sweet. He tutors inmates to prepare them for their GED tests. Every single one of his students has passed the exam the first time.

That lemon tree we've been given keeps sprouting lemons, and there are times I am scrambling to gather them all up and glean their sweetness before the rotting sets in. 

I continue writing about our struggles here, and on other blogs.

I've written a young adult contemporary novel, A Brother's Oath, based on real events that occurred in our home. It's about a younger brother who witnesses his older brother spiral into the darkness of mental illness, exposing real issues kids face today and the dangers of denial.

I've done some public speaking for NAMI, telling our story at local events and training seminars.

My sons and I have been featured in a documentary film about mental illness and its stigma called Semper Est Sperare (Always Hope).

And most recently, I've been invited to take part in training for SandyHookPromise.org, where I will become the first from my state certified to present their educational programs: Say Something and Start with Hello at schools.

So if you discover a lemon tree sprouting in your own yard, don't worry. You'll find your own recipe. It just may take a few batches to get it right.




And Now, for ACT III


Oct. 8, 2015

Today was the day we thought my son was coming home. From prison. I could almost hear the original score swell as we finally had arrived at the end of this real-life horror film.

But we thought wrong.

In July of this year, my son was told his release date would be Oct. 8, 2015. Today came and went. No release.

After writing several letters to all the prison officials he knew asking why he'd been given no specific details about his pending release yet, today, he finally got answers. Unfortunately, the answers he got weren't good ones. Apparently, the clerk who told him the Oct. 8 date made a mistake.

He isn't going to be released until November 2, 2015.

So it will be another 25 days. That's all. Not even a month more.

He's been incarcerated since March 28, 2013.

To date, that's 924 days.
Or 132 weeks.
Or 22,176 hours.
Or 1,330,560 minutes.
Or 79,833,600 seconds.

So what's the big deal about 25 more days?

I don't really know. But hearing the news today felt like he was arrested and incarcerated all over again. The wind was completely knocked out of me. I couldn't catch my breath. When he told me, I didn't let him hear how crushed I felt. I think he had the same idea. We basically took turns convincing the other one that 25 days will fly by.

Just when I think this entire nightmare is almost over, somebody comes along and tacks another chapter onto the end of our story. It's like we can't cross into ACT III of this horrifying screenplay. The rising action just keeps rising.

I can't climb anymore. I'm done. I just want resolution already.

Roll credits.



An Open Letter to Mr. Andy Parker, Father of Slain Journalist Alison Parker

August 31, 2015

Dear Mr. Parker, 

First, let me extend my deepest sympathies for your loss of your beloved daughter Alison. No parent should ever outlive their child, but to lose a child in this horrific way must be the worst hell on earth. Please know you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

I am writing in support of your mission to do "whatever it takes" to stop guns from getting into the wrong hands in our country. Mr. Parker, five years ago, a loaded handgun got into my 18 year old son's hands.

My son was an outpatient at a mental health facility being treated for what at first was diagnosed as depression. Though he'd been physically threatening to me and his younger brother, he was able to charm the intake nurses into admitting him to the day program rather than the inpatient program of this reputable facility. He was to attend sessions between 9:00am and 3:00pm Monday through Friday for three weeks.  And because he had just turned 18, he was grouped with adults of various ages and diagnoses.

During this program, my son befriended a fellow patient who met him in the mental health facility's parking lot during a break one day and sold him a loaded handgun.

My son came home intending to kill himself, however, that's not what happened.

My younger son, then 13, found the gun in his older brother's room, and, thinking it was an Airsoft gun, held it up as if to shoot it. By the grace of God, my older son came into the room just at that moment and stopped him, admitting that the gun was real and that it was loaded.

Mr. Parker, my two teenage sons kept the secret of this loaded handgun in my house for several weeks.  I had no idea it even existed.

Thankfully, my younger son eventually did tell me about the gun before anyone used it. Unfortunately, though, when my older son was faced with the choice of being admitted to a different, hopefully better, mental health facility as an inpatient or leaving my home for good, he chose the latter. He walked out my door on December 31, 2010.

Today, my son is in prison.

Mr. Parker, I am writing to you because I want to be sure you know our story, just one of so many stories that have not ended well in our country. It is the story of gun control as well as mental illness.

The issues are intertwined, yes, however, it is not as easy as requiring universal background checks to curb the gun violence in our country.

My son would have passed a background check. He'd never had more than a speeding ticket in his life. But Mr. Parker, remember, my son bought this gun illegally, so a background check, even if it would have flagged him, would not have been done anyway.

The heart of this matter lies so far beyond gun control itself. While I am a firm believer that we do not need the same Second Amendment that once allowed our country's citizens to protect themselves against the British so long ago, there are so many more things to consider.

First and foremost, our country's mental health care system must change. We need to identify mental illnesses sooner and much more comprehensively. American teenagers need to be educated about the signs of mental illness and what to do if they recognize them in themselves or others.

Secondly, the stigma associated with mental illness in our country must end. People need not fear what others will think of them. Mental illness occurs in one out of four adults in our country, yet people are ashamed and afraid of judgment. Years ago, people whispered the "C" word. Now they boldly announce: I have cancer. Why can't people see that mental illness is a physical illness just like diabetes or cancer? And it is treatable, very treatable, but those who are diagnosed have to seek the treatment, thus, they have to challenge the stigma. And the three in four American adults who are not diagnosed have to end the stigma and embrace our loved ones with support rather than shame.

Finally, our insurance companies must be forced to provide proper and thorough treatment for our mentally ill population. Even if someone is brave enough to seek treatment and is diagnosed, there is no guarantee that they will receive the essential care they need.

Mr. Parker, I stand beside you in your commitment to stop gun violence. I urge you not only to advocate for legislative measures with gun laws, but also advocate for our mental health community. We need better preventative measures to identify and treat mental illness. We need more comprehensive insurance coverage for it. And we need to encourage our citizens to recognize and end its stigma.

If there is anything I can do to help you continue your mission, please let me know. You have my deepest sympathies as well as my utmost respect.

Sincerely,

Anne Slease
Wilmington, Delaware

This Jake on Christmas Eve 2012.
It was the first time he visited me since he left my home in 2010,
and the last time I saw him before he was arrested.





"Why We Fall Down" Runner-Up Essay written by my son Luke about his older brother Jake

 August 17, 2015


Luke and Jake, Christmas 2012
The three of us, back when Luke was shorter than me.
My son Luke wrote an essay about his older brother for a scholarship contest. He was awarded Runner up. Here is his essay.

Who's Holding Your Invisible Strings?

July 20, 2015



If you've ever struggled with a mental illness or cared for someone struggling, you know how unpredictable life can be. The only thing certain is uncertainty.

But for me, there has been a secret weapon that has silently, invisibly kept me afloat all this time: the love of my life, Tom.

We were friends first, having met by chance while working in a community theatre project together, a musical: Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka. I was the director and Tom played Grandpa Joe.

If you are familiar with the story, you know that Grandpa Joe and Charlie experiment with a "Fizzy Lifting Drink" during their chocolate factory tour and they both end up flying. This stunt, as well as a few other flying scenes were critical to the believability of the show--they had to be done right. Our production team rented an impressive flying mechanism, complete with special flight training for our four actors and four flight crew members. We took every precaution to ensure the safety of the stunts, but even then, we knew that one slight mistake could be fatal.

Good thing I trusted our flight crew. One of the members was my older son, Jake then 18 years old. He was smart, reliable and strong, a perfect choice.

During rehearsals, I remember Tom brought the entire flight crew their favorite soft drinks, a six pack of Mountain Dew or a jug of Arnold Palmer, whatever they liked. My son was so thrilled that Tom thought to bring him his own special treat just for working backstage.

As the director, I was impressed and thanked Tom. I remember his response: "You have to recognize the crew of any production. They are what holds it all together. They need to feel important because they are."

He was right. Those working in the background often go unnoticed, yet it's their tireless efforts that keep everything running smoothly. And in the case of Willy Wonka, they were the ones who kept our performers alive. In fact, my son was a flyer for Tom, meaning he operated some of the invisible wires that suspended him high overhead while he flipped somersaults on stage. So quite literally, my son Jake had Tom's life in his hands.

A few months after the production ended, Jake's world fell apart. He spiraled into a blackhole of mental illness that, ultimately, landed him behind bars. He is still incarcerated today.

It hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been the most difficult time in my life. And at first, I felt completely alone. But then, thankfully, Tom stepped in "backstage" and took hold of my invisible strings, helping me hold it all together, keeping me alive.

I dedicate this post to all those selfless flight crew members out there who are holding invisible strings everyday. You should feel special, because you are.

Thank you, Tom. Happy Anniversary.

*The photo above is of Tom, suspended in the air during a flight rehearsal for Willy Wonka. Off stage, holding the ropes of Tom's invisible strings, is my son, Jake.





Caregivers: Two for One Special!

May 28, 2015

This post is actually an invitation for you to check out two other posts I have written recently, both on the subject of caregiving for a loved one with mental illness.

The first article is called "Be the Village" and it's posted on International Bipolar Foundation's website.

LINK: International Bipolar Foundation post "Be the Village"





The second is an article for Amy White's blog called "Far From Paradise."

LINK: Far From Paradise post "No More Excuses"


The Other "F" Word


May 8, 2015

Can you be an extroverted introvert? Or an introverted extrovert? I’m one of those. My moods tend to dictate which “vert” is dominant on any given day or at any given moment actually. As a fifth grade teacher, I have to be extroverted. My job depends on my ability to capture and sustain the attention of a classroom full of eleven-year-olds for 84 minutes at a time. Have you ever seen that dog treat commercial where the pup says, “Bacon!” over and over again? That’s what I imagine is happening in many of my students’ minds most of the time. So, to battle the bacon beckoning, I do my best to put on a good show every day during class. Like I said before, as a teacher, I am extroverted. That’s the “Teacher Me.” But that’s not really who I am. Not really. In truth, I’m actually kind of shy. My bipolar 2 diagnosis came as no surprise when I received it a few years ago. My mood swings were apparent early on. In fact, all my life I’ve had trouble creating and sustaining good, healthy relationships. What I’m about to tell you is very difficult to admit. First: I’ve been married before. Twice before, actually. And second: I could chart my life on a timeline marked not by years, not by jobs, not even by husbands. No, I could chart it by friends. There were the “Laila* Years” and then the “Sharon* Years” followed closely by the “Krysta* Years” and the list goes on. So the fact that I’m on my third (and LAST, thankyouverymuch) marriage is NOT what is most humiliating. No, what I’m most humiliated by is the fact that I don’t have many friends. Not really. If you’re looking at my Facebook page you’re saying, “Of course you have friends! Look at all those friends! Oodles of them!” Sure, “friends” on Facebook. But real Friends? The capital “F” kind? The kind of Friend who turns to you when they need a shoulder to cry on, a funny story to share, or someone to hold back their hair when they’ve had too much to drink. I mean that kind of Friend. Besides my husband, who is by far and away my very best Friend on the planet, my Friend pool is quite shallow. But please, don’t stop reading. This isn’t a “Feel Sorry for Me” post. I promise. Because, honestly, it’s my fault. The pre-diagnosis/medication/therapy “Me” was pretty difficult to be around. There were times I couldn’t stand to be around myself, so I have no idea how anyone else could. I totally get that. I do. And since I’m naturally an introvert, making Friends hasn’t been too easy. But now as my life is settling down, and I have a loving husband, a calming home life, and a solid career, I feel like it’s time to focus on building some Friendships. The capital “F” kind. Which brings me to the purpose of this post. C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” And I think I may have met that kind of friend today. I mean, it’s a little early to say for sure. But there was that “What? You too?” thing going on. We talked and talked and laughed and cried. Yes, full disclosure: there was a little crying. But I don’t want to jinx it, so for now I’ll just say this: Hey, Friend, if you’re reading this, “I thought I was the only one.” *Names have been changed for privacy.

A Thread of Hope


April 11, 2015

Today was Decision Day at the college my younger son plans to attend this fall. From the moment we arrived on campus, the positive energy was palpable. Helium-filled balloons, giant welcome signs, blue and gold pom-poms and, of course, excited college students welcomed the thousand or so high school seniors as well as their parents for a day of university pride. Once we were checked in, and given our $20 gift card to the school book store, my younger son and I entered a giant reception area where we could fill up on “free” muffins, coffee, juice, and fresh fruit. I say it was “free” because it technically didn’t cost us anything…but once you pay the tuition and room & board fees, those breakfast treats work out to be about $10,000 each! Enough negativity though. The day was about school pride and we bought into it hook, line and sinker.  Since the school is in our home state, he was happy to see a few kids he knew from high school while I had a chance to meet and chit chat with their parents. Everyone was brimming with excitement and it was contagious. I fought back tears all morning. Not because I’m sad he’s growing up, though I certainly am. No, my tears were tears of pride and relief because my baby is going to be ok and this morning it finally hit me that he really is. He’s going to be ok. After a few helpful presentations, we walked around the beautiful campus, took some pictures at the admissions building and visited the book store, where we spent more than $20, by the way. All in all, it was a pretty great Saturday morning.

We left just after lunch because I had an appointment; I was scheduled to visit my older son in prison.

Though my son has been incarcerated since March of 2013, I’ve never visited him alone. I’ve always either gone with my ex-husband or my younger son. Today, though, I was solo. What struck me as I walked in was the stark difference between my morning and my afternoon’s activities. When I arrived at the prison, there were no balloons, no friendly faces, and certainly no free food. Instead, I was led through a metal detector and then made to reveal the contents of my pants pockets as well as lift up my pants legs to ensure I wasn’t armed. And the crowd that gathered with me definitely contrasted from my morning’s company. The afternoon bunch consisted of young mothers quieting their babies, older couples frowning to one another, and single visitors like me just politely smiling, not making eye contact, and hoping the visit will begin soon. And, though I was grateful to see my older son again, I wasn’t able to muster the same level of excitement for him as I did for my younger son just a few hours before. Just like every visit I have with him, the tears welled in my eyes from the moment I saw him through the plexi-glass when he lifted up the receiver of the phone. We talked about his most recent run-in with the pod bully and the progress of his current GED students that he tutors. And though he still faces several more months of prison, we can see the end now and we talked about what he’ll do when he’s released. We talked about the halfway house rules he’ll need to follow and how he’ll have to use the city bus since he no longer has a car. We talked for the entire hour and some of it was mundane, but all of it mattered to me because it was all evidence that reminded me that he’s going to be ok. He really is.

Though my morning and afternoon experiences couldn’t have been more different, I have managed to find one thread of similarity between them: Both experiences involved hope. While this morning’s hope was about new opportunities, this afternoon’s hope was about simple survival. 

Either way, though, both my sons are going to be ok. They’re going to be ok.

Two Year Anniversary of the Worst Day of My Life




March 28, 2015

It's been two years. Two years since I finally received that call I'd been expecting I'd get. Two years since my world was turned completely upside down. Two years since the wide open field of my son's future was squeezed into an ever-narrowing shaft of fading darkness.

It has been two years since my son was arrested and incarcerated.

So much has happened since then. Our entire family has endured so much heartache. But my son has definitely suffered the most.

He has been attacked on numerous occasions (the most recent one resulted in a cracked molar that wasn't repaired for 3 days). He has witnessed two deaths, one, a murder by stabbing with a homemade shank, and the other, his cell mate who died in his sleep apparently of natural causes. He has been sent to "the hole" (solitary confinement for defending himself in a fist fight). He has been put on suicide watch, sent to a padded room and left naked for 48 hours (a conscious choice he made due to fear he'd be jumped by his co-defendant who had been placed in my son's pod in error). And he has received sub-par medical care: his bipolar condition has been treated with the cheapest, least effective medication with the most side effects, and his wisdom teeth were all extracted without adequate pain medication. He has gained weight from the poor diet high in refined sugars and low in protein and lack of opportunity to exercise, and his skin has become pasty and gray from such little sun exposure.

And these things I mention because they are the things my son has told me about. He said he won't tell me all the "bad stuff" because he doesn't want me to worry.

But we can finally see the end of this nightmare now. We expect that he'll be released by the end of this calendar year though they haven't told him a specific date yet.

His little brother has been working on lining up a possible job for him when he gets out.

He's making plans to attend college classes as soon as he's released.

And, most importantly, he is finally being realistic about his illness. He has learned more about it, and he has accepted it as a reality. It is part of who he is. It does not define him, but it is something that mustn't be ignored. He knows firsthand what kind of tragedies denial can cause.

And here I am.

I feel like I've aged ten years not just two.

But I am still here.

And I'm hopeful. Still.





A Documentary about Mental Illness and Its Stigma





May 11, 2015

In June 2013, my younger son and I were interviewed by a documentary film maker who was traveling the globe for his project about mental illness and its stigma. Here is the link to the original post from my blog.

We were honored to be involved in this powerful film with such an important message. The film is now finished. I hope you'll take a peek at the film. The director, Tim Hill, plans to submit it to film festivals later this year, but hopefully, you'll help us share it via the internet as well.











A New Perspective from the Cab of a Tow Truck

January 18, 2015

The other day I had a flat tire. The night before I had run over a good-sized rock that must have slowly deflated my tire overnight. So the next morning, I went out to the car and discovered the flat.

As luck would have it, both my husband and my son had already left for work and school so I was on my own to solve the problem.

And these new cars don't have spares in the trunk. (Not that I would have been able to change the tire anyway...) Good thing I had a service program in place. I called for a tow truck.

When the tow truck driver arrived, my first instinct was to snap a photograph or two and "check in" on social media so that if the driver was some kind of maniacal killer at least my "friends" would know where and when I disappeared. (Yes, I watch too much Dateline.)

But the driver of the tow truck didn't frighten me at all. Instead, he reminded me of my sons. He was young, early twenties, with a round, boyish face. He wore silver wire-framed glasses and his dark brown hair was short and combed. I didn't catch his name.

We first talked about how he became a tow truck driver. He joined the crew a year ago when his cousin told him about a job opening. He had been "a pizza guy" before that and had not been satisfied.

But driving a tow truck is not his goal. He plans to join the Air Force next month. In his words, "I just need to get out."

I certainly could relate to his sense of urgency. My younger son seems to feel that way, too. With all that has happened over the last few years, my younger son yearns to break free from the dark clouds of his older brother's poor choices and his father's struggle with alcohol. So, because I could relate to this young man's feelings, I shared with him a small part of our story.

It's funny how just a few words can make a difference.

After hearing about my sons' struggles, including my older son's battle with mental illness, suicide intentions, and eventual felony arrest, the young man said this, "That reminds me of my brother."

And then he was quiet.

I wasn't sure if I should ask anymore. He gripped the large steering wheel firmly and stared directly ahead pursing his lips.

I waited.

Then he said, "My older brother had mental problems since middle school. But he was a really good student. He was valedictorian. And he got a free ride to Drexel... But then he killed himself."

Suddenly, I was washed over by a series of realizations:

I had hit a rock.
That rock had caused a flat.
That flat had required a tow truck.
The tow truck I was assigned had this driver.
This boy needed to tell me this.
And I needed to hear it.

The silence was broken eventually. We went on to discuss mental illness and those it affects beyond the patients themselves. I told him about NAMI and what I'd been doing with it lately. I urged him to check it out for himself or suggest it to his dad. His mother, unfortunately, was out of the picture.

Our conversation continued until the moment he shifted the large truck into park. He tilted his head and gave me a crooked, awkward smile before hopping out to unhitch my car. I climbed down and stood beside his giant vehicle suddenly feeling exceptionally small.

What had happened to me in that 25 minute drive? My head was still spinning when he approached me with paperwork to sign.

"Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome," he said sheepishly.

"No, really. Thank you. For talking to me. That was very brave and I really do appreciate it. You're a strong guy. And I think you'll do great in the Air Force. Good luck."

"Thanks," he shrugged.

I extended my hand to shake his, but then quickly decided that wasn't enough. "Can I hug you?" I asked. "I feel like I should hug you."

He smiled, "Sure, yeah, thanks."

And we hugged. Then he climbed back up into the cab of his giant tow truck and drove away.
I never did catch his name.

Choices


November 29, 2014

My younger son is applying to colleges and the deadlines are looming. The choices about where to visit, what questions to ask, and when to hit “send” are overwhelming. To help him with this arduous process, I offered to proofread his application essay.

The prompt was about identifying an event in his life that triggered his transition from childhood to adulthood. He chose to write about his older brother’s incarceration.

He was not eager to share it with me, assuming that the subject matter would be too difficult for me to handle.  He knows me well. I considered it for a moment. Would I finally be able to get a glimpse inside the iron fortress of my younger son’s mind? The emotional wall he has built over the last few years has grown tall and wide, but in this moment he offered me the lone key to the only door. I chose to step inside.

I took the essay and began to read. In doing so, I learned a few valuable lessons.

First, I realized that I am stronger than I thought. Not only was I able to read this moving account of his fallen hero and how he consequently discovered himself, I was able to compartmentalize my own emotions in order to help draw out his insightful viewpoint about that difficult time. I listened for his unique voice through the din of my own muddied memories, and I helped him shape his thoughts into a well-crafted piece about his personal journey of becoming a man.

Secondly, I remembered that we do not live in a vacuum. The choices we make do not only affect us, they affect those we care about, those we hold dear. And, because of those first choices, more choices must be made.  It is a ripple effect. Four years ago, my older son made the choice to ignore his bipolar disorder diagnosis. Eventually, he paid the price: he is now a convicted felon. My younger son, who is guilty only of being born into a household affected by mental illness, has faced difficult choices too. He could have easily played the victim. He could have allowed his brother’s illness and incarceration to destroy him too. Instead, though, he has made the choice to embrace the challenges in life as opportunities to become a better person every day. His brother’s choices have affected him, but he has chosen to use them for good.


Lastly, I discovered that my younger son is going to be okay. I see now that he is healing. While internalizing his feelings was his natural coping mechanism, in his own way, he has dealt with them too. He has sorted through his disappointment, his anger, and his despair and he has resolved to thrive despite them.