I spent an afternoon this week in the Emergency Room with a loved one (everything turned out just fine, thank goodness). As I rocked and shushed the baby and watched the seconds click by excruciatingly slowly, patients came in to and out of the bed next to ours. And while I tried to mind my business, those hospital curtains don't hide much.
Over the course of that afternoon, five patients came into that bed while we waited. The first four were all talking and calm. Their ailments ranged from a torn ACL to a sore shoulder. All four were prescribed opiates. The fifth patient was an opiate overdose.
As the editor of Renew, I often see stories about the opiate epidemic sweeping the country. I write about prescription monitoring programs, and report on HIV outbreaks tied to drug use. But to see how easily opiates were handed out in the ER was eye-opening. One patient said "Tylenol will be fine," but the doctor insisted on bring him Vicodin. Another said his pain was a 6 on a scale from 1 to 10, and was given powerful painkillers.
I was surprised at the ease with which the pills were dispensed, but the last patient - the opiate overdose - brought home the issue. As the young patient wretched and sobbed and begged the nurses and police officers not to call her parents, I thought of facts I researched for a writing assignment last week:
That girl (and she was a girl) in the ER was just one of 7,000 Americans who are treated in emergency rooms across the country for prescription drug overdoses each day. And just imagine how many prescriptions are handed out.
My statement started with a question.
"Why, if you have cancer - or another physical disease - do people reach out and embrace you, but mental illness is something to be shunned and not spoken about?"
I heard that question often growing up, from both my parents. I knew that my father had bipolar disorder, and I knew what the perceptions of that were. Even though he was healthy for my whole childhood, my parents began a conversation that they knew would likely be a lifelong one for our family.
Recently, someone reacted negatively to my writing about my father. Writers - especially in today's easily-searchable blog culture - spend plenty of time fretting over which stories are theirs to tell, and which rely too heavily on the supporting cast in their lives.
There have been many things that I have not shared about my family's experience, because they are not my story. That said, there is a reason my parents began a conversation about stigma years before my father got sick. They realized how powerful and damaging a force stigma is.
I refuse to be embarrassed by mental illness. I refuse to let denial and shame hold back information that could help someone. I refuse to not speak about something that is so important in my life, and in the lives of millions of people.
Nearly 20 percent of Americans will have a diagnosable mental illness this year. A quarter of those people will have an episode that seriously impairs their life. If one in five people suffer from mental illness, that means nearly every family in this country can relate to my story on some level. And yet, despite this, patients and their families feel ashamed and alone because these invisible diseases are talked about in hushed whispers.
A mother who chooses to speak out from the unimaginable hell of losing a daughter, or a family discussing addiction in an obituary are taking the brave step of telling other people "you are not alone; yes, these are 'real' diseases; please, seek help."
In my own tiny way I can contribute to that conversation. It isn't about garnering clicks or grabbing attention - it's about being able to make a small difference. The father I grew up with has all but disappeared, but I can honor that man, and the question he planted. I can share his words directly when he asks. And if one person chooses to ask for help, or a family is able to shed the weight of secrecy, then we have made something positive come out of a horrible illness.
That's why I speak.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But for a new mom who has just had the most primal and exhausting experience of her life, the pictures are worth so much more -- this coming from a mama who makes her living putting a value on words.
When I heard about Kim Finn and Stork Photography, I knew I wanted a photographer at the Burchling's birth. Everyone thought I was nuts -- after all, birth is messy, graphic and unpredictable. But it's also beautiful and miraculous, and as a long-time birth junkie who loved hearing about entrances into this world, I knew I would like something to look back on to help me remember when our family grew from two to three.
I am so glad that I did. Having the photographer at the birth was a gift -- to ourselves, to our baby and to our families. Without Stork Photography we never could have captured moments like this:
I could tell the baby how her Mimi went to get coffee, and the baby chose that time to decide to come immediately; how my mom walked in thinking she was just saying hi to me, only to find her granddaughter snuggled in my arms; but when you see the pictures you can feel the emotion that even the most talented writers can't capture.
For our family that lives on the other side of the world, sharing the birth story photos was a way to make them feel like they experienced the birth as well.
And that is priceless.
I grew up in a family that worked in the trades, and I was always taught that although they may not have the most glamorous jobs, tradesmen had two things going for them: someone always needed them and they always had something to barter with. One of my favorite family memories was spending a week's vacation at a beach house in Maine. The prime summer slot had been given in exchange for painting that my parents had done at a customer's home.
More and more, I'm realizing that writing has the same benefits. Nearly anyone can use a writer, so I have become more comfortable asking if people are interested in taking payment in trade or in exchanging services. Recently, I've had two excellent experiences bartering with local professionals.
Last week, I got the itch to find out whether I'm having a boy or a girl. I looked into 3D ultrasounds, but with Christmas coming I couldn't justify the expense to find out the baby's sex just a few weeks early. On a whim I emailed Jessica at Diagnostic Ultrasound Suite, mentioning that if she would ever like to do anything in trade I'd love to talk. I knew it was a good sign when I immediately got a call back. Jessica had been in the process of finding a writer to revamp her website. Sometimes it's amazing how things work out. I got a sneak peak at baby GIRL Burch, and now Jessica and I are working together to made sure her website reflects her warm personality and years of professional experience.
This morning, my husband, my dog and I braved the single-digit temperatures to meet Kimberly Finn, of Stork Photography. Kim is the premier birth photographer on the North Shore (heck, in New England!). Her business is booming and she's so busy out shooting beautiful photos (like the one above) that she doesn't have time to sit home and fuss over a website and promotional material. Plus, she'll be the first to tell you that she's a photographer and not a writer for a reason (I have the opposite problem). I'm going to make sure that Kim has a fantastic website that shows the appreciation that her clients have for her birth story photography. In exchange, she'll be there working her magic when Baby Burch is born.
Meeting both of these women has been extraordinary. Sure, I received services that I was looking for. But much more importantly I met two strong, smart, local women who are running successful businesses. Although we're in different fields, bouncing ideas around and comparing victories and mistakes has been a great learning experience as we all work to bring our businesses to the next level. I can't wait to see what the new year brings for these relationships!
Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley spoke out about the treatment of mental illness in the state. The same day, I found out my Dad, who I had helped enroll in treatment a few weeks ago, is back off his medication and back into his window seat, where he spends his days perched in the sunlight, drifting in and out of sleep, like a cat with little else to do.
As Coakley talked broadly about changes to the healthcare system, she reiterated what many people feel - that changing our success rates in mental illness treatment begins with changing attitudes toward these diseases.
"Too many patients resist seeking treatment, and too many families feel pressure to do the same," she said.
In high school, I wrote my senior thesis on this very idea. While most seniors dragged their feet at having to write the extensive research paper, I dove head first into the project, looking forward to working on my paper - "Stigma surrounding mental illness and stigma reduction techniques."
It had begun with a question that my mom asked over and over when we were growing up. "If you have cancer, or diabetes, you reach to the community for support. Why does no one support people with Bipolar Disorder?"
Her question stuck with me, and repeating it gave me an in to work with one of the most well-respected professors at Boston University's School of Medicine. I looked into the world of stigma and was amazed at how complex it was. The paper gave a lot of analysis, and no answers.
When the project was finished, I asked one of the graders what I could have done to get high honors, rather than the honors grade that I'd received. He said that I should have explored which reactions are stigma, and which are legitimate reason for avoiding someone due to their actions.
At the time, I accepted his answer and wondered why my adviser hadn't brought it up. However, thinking back on it I realized how ridiculous this was, and how much it fed into the very stigma I was trying to combat. Would you avoid a cancer patient because they are needy? Most people would find that abhorrent. The grader's suggestion was just as unacceptable as the words of people who were afraid to help AIDS sufferers for fear of catching the disease.
Of course, if someone is really violent or toxic no one should have to tolerate that behavior. However, the vast majority of mentally ill patients do not have violent tendencies. They are people suffering from disease and needing all the help they can get.
Would it be acceptable to cut off my father because dealing with him can be oh so frustrating? I don't think so. Just like if he were fighting a physical illness, we'll keep on battling and raising awareness (while accepting that there's only so much we can do). Wish us luck.
Like too many Americans, I've never really paid attention to Veteran's Day other than being thankful for a day off. Some of my peers were off fighting two wars and my grandfather was a proud Korean War vet, yet the most attention I paid to November 11th came during the year I spent in London, far from home. People in the UK wear tiny red paper poppies on their jackets in the lead-up to November 11th, and by Remembrance Day London was a sea of red. I thought "wouldn't it be nice if we had such a big celebration at home," without realizing that we did, but I just hadn't paid it much mind.
Until this year. As many of you know, I've been working on the Salute to Veterans book being published by North of Boston Media Group. In my short career so far I have had the opportunity to interview great people - teachers making a difference day in and day out or a mom who turned her attention to helping children with cancer. However, no interview has been nearly as moving as the interviews with these veterans.
My grandfather always shied away from talking about his service, and my father-in-law says little about his storied military career. Speaking to the veterans that I have interviewed for the book has allowed me to take a peek into the lives of millions of Americans. Lives that have been rocked by conflicts across the globe. Seeing just how effected by war the veterans are decades later is jolting - nearly all of them have cried during our interviews.
At the same time, many of the veterans downplay their service, speaking of a sense of duty. Their service was just something that had to be done. One veteran who served under Gen. Patton in WWII told me, "Even heroes have fear." The son and nephew of seven siblings that served together during WWII brushed off his family's extraordinary service, saying "Everyone served in the big war."
I never had the opportunity to talk to my grandpa much about his military service. However, talking to the veterans that I have connected with on this project has been nearly as gratifying. I will never again let a November 11th slip by without taking time to acknowledge the veterans. Thank-you, vets, for your service, and thank-you for allowing me to tell just part of your stories.
Way back in July, when I was pitched a story about the life of a real witch I was a little skeptical. Would it be all voodoo and strange sayings? At the same time, my interest was piqued.
Last week, in the lead-up to Halloween, I finally met Deborah D'Onofrio, the local witch who would be showing me the ropes. In addition to being a witch, Deborah is also a certified medium and a reiki healing master. I arrived at her (very normal looking house) to interview her, and after that the tables turned as she did a "session" with me, using her skills as a medium and a reiki healer.
I would say that I'm pretty open to believing in mediums and the like. I was excited for the session, and very curious about what would come out. I wasn't contacted by any family members what I was hoping to hear from (looking to you, Grandpa), but the knowledge that Deb had about me and other people in my life was erie. It had me thinking a lot about the energy that surrounds us.
As you can probably tell, I enjoyed the experience, but it was personal and I wasn't able to be very articulate about it. So, my personal experience didn't make it into the newspaper story. However, I did share lots of info about Deb and about witchcraft.
Here's an excerpt:
"The stigma surrounding her spirituality is one reason that D’Onofrio likes to speak out about being a witch and educate those who are interested in learning more. For D’Onofrio, who is a green witch, practicing her spirituality is all mostly a matter of being in touch with nature.
“It’s about being connected to the earth first and foremost,” she said. “I treat the world as a sacred place. It’s simple. No toads and dragons blood involved.”
Her main belief is clear and succinct: “There is power in all living things. The earth, elements and creatures all have magic. They are our allies.”
She also believes in a plethora of spirit guides and deities, and in the inherent power of thought.
D’Onofrio’s whole practice is built around these notions. Yoga and prayer appear in her practice regularly, as does meditation.
The less mainstream details of her practice may garner a few raised eyebrows: She uses candles, minerals, herbs and other natural items to add power to her intentions, or spells. She appeals to a variety of deities and is a trained medium and Reiki master.
Just like Christianity and other major religions, witchcraft can cover a wide array of belief systems. The individual-led practice that D’Onofrio follows is different from the well-known Wiccan religion.
“It’s like a tree,” she said. “The roots we all share. Yet, there are different branches at the top that break into tons of traditions.”"
You can read the rest of the story about Deborah here. I'd love to hear from you. Have you had any spooky experiences this Halloween? Do you believe in the witches?
During October, NFL players are prancing around in pink in support of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Less publicized but no less important is the fact that October is also Domestic Violence Awareness month. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, one in four women and one in seven men experience some sort of abuse during their lifetime. Those are staggering numbers.
Yet unlike breast cancer, domestic violence isn't something that is talked about. That's why this month, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is urging people to speak up and speak out, so that others can See DV (#seeDV). By sharing stories, the organization hopes that awareness will be raised, and that change will start with conversations.
In honor of that campaign, I'd like to share just one story. A family member of mine asked me to help her write this so that she could potentially help someone else suffering from abuse. After 18 years in a very abusive marriage, she is rebuilding her life, and hopes that by sharing her story others can avoid what she went through.
Here's her story:
Hind-sight is twenty-twenty, as the saying goes. We all have moments in our lives that we can look back on and wish we had made a different decision.
I married Dan* on July 2, 1994. Two weeks before the wedding, I stood in my mother’s kitchen, and told her I was having doubts about marrying him.
“Don’t wait,” she told me. “Go with your gut. We can call the people we invited and tell them something came up.”
I didn’t listen. In my heart, I knew that my feelings were more than the usual cold feet, but in some ways I was already committed to Dan, since we were expecting a child. I convinced myself that it would be fine. Everyone yells, I thought. This is marriage - you expect good times and bad. After all, Dan was good to my three-year-old son, and took good care of his two daughters from a previous marriage. I walked down the aisle and tried not to look back.
Unfortunately, having rings on our fingers did not make our relationship any healthier. Three month after the wedding, Dan’s two daughters moved in with us four days a week. Although we were suddenly caring for two more children, and expecting a baby in weeks, Dan quit his job, opting instead to work part-time for his brother’s painting business when the company needed extra help. In the last month of my pregnancy, I became a Mom to two more pre-schoolers and took on the role of breadwinner, in addition to running the house without any help from Dan. I worked until the day before I gave birth.
* * *
My daughter was born on October 23. When she was born, there was no doctor in the room - only me, the nurse and my husband. It was seven minutes from the time I waked into the hospital until the time K was delivered. Why did I wait do long? It wasn’t because I wanted to labor at home, or due to terrible traffic. My baby barely made it to the hospital because of what had happened the day before.
The previous day, I had been having contractions seven minutes apart. I was excited and scared - it was finally time to meet my baby. I called Dan, and he left work early to take me to the hospital. When we got to the hospital, my labor stopped. Instead of appreciating being able to rest uninterrupted for one more night, Dan was furious. He yelled at me and accused me of putting on a show for my mom. He said that she wanted me to be in labor, and since I was unable to say no, I faked the whole thing. Dan yelled the whole night - after all, he knew when someone was in labor, from his experience with his ex-wife. I was not in labor, he said.
I spent that night crying. The next day, Dan ordered me to take the kids out so that he could rest. My sister and I took the three kids pumpkin picking. I went home and quietly fixed dinner, before driving Dan’s daughters home to their biological mother’s house, thirty minutes away. The whole time, I was having contractions five minutes apart.
When I got home, I put my son to bed, and tried to lie down. I couldn’t rest though - every five minutes I needed to go to the bathroom. When I started bleeding, Dan finally caught on that I was in labor. We went to the hospital, and the baby was born seven minutes later.
Dan went home half an hour after the delivery - he needed sleep, he said. The next morning, he called me to say that creditors had called because we were behind on bills.
“Well,” I said. “You quit your job.”
His reply was that he wanted a divorce when I got home. How dare I accuse him, and blame him for our finances?
The day your baby is born should be blissful, but instead of appreciating my new daughter, I spent her first day of life worrying about how I could appease her father.
* * *
This is how our lives went on for eighteen years. I was physically, mentally, emotionally and verbally abused by Dan. My children were verbally and mentally abused, and had to live in constant fear about what might set Dan off next.
I called the police on Dan a few times, and even kicked him out of the house. However, he would come back with promises, and I would believe them. As soon as I let him in the house, it was back to the same cycle of abuse.
Finally, last summer, Dan pushed me to my breaking point, and made me realize that I needed to do something or I would die in this situation.
My daughter and I came home one afternoon and our dogs barked enthusiastically to welcome us into the house. Dan came downstairs screaming. His older daughter, J, told him to stop yelling at me.
“It’s none of your business,” he shot back. “This is her fault.”
“No, it’s not,” she replied. “What are you going to do, hit me, like you hit mom?”
He did. He went after J, and hit her again and again. I tried to run out the front door with her, but he pulled the door open, and punched J in the head, sending her flying across a chair. Dan went inside, and I knew I needed to get J to safety. She was bleeding from her head and her knee. Dan came outside, screaming at us to get in the house, and trying to pull us inside.
Dan went into the house to get his shoes, so that he could leave before the police came.
“Are you happy,” he asked me. “See what you did?”
The police arrived, and arrested Dan. They called the EMTs for J, who had cuts to her head and knee, and bruised ribs.
The next morning, Dan bailed himself out of jail. He called me to see if I would like to go to a show with him and talk about what I had caused.
Instead of going to a show, I went to the police station. My daughter and I got a three-week order of protection the next day. When that expired, we had it extended. Dan argued that he had not done anything to us, and that he should be allowed to live in his home. The judge was not convinced, however. He granted my daughter and I a two-year order of protection.
Even though Dan is not allowed to contact us, we don’t sleep. When we do, we have nightmares. We check the car every time we get in. At shopping centers, we scan the faces before we get out. The fear never goes away.
After eighteen years, many people didn’t think I would ever escape my relationship with Dan. I didn’t even believe it. But now my children and I are free, and we deserve it. My daughter and I take classes and participate in support groups. We try to understand the violence that we have lived with, and to break the cycle of abuse. We have connected with family that Dan has cut us off from. It has been over a year since I last saw Dan, and I am currently in a healthy, loving relationship. Although it is difficult, my family and I know that we can get better together.
Usually, I can tell when a story is going to be great - it has an appeal to me, and I can see that it will appeal to readers as well. Every so often, though, a story surprises me: a good story turns out to be a flop, or a bland story ends up being a lot of fun.
Last week, I was assigned to cover the re-starting of a clock in a renovated church steeple. I wasn't jumping at the story, especially when I learned that the clock would start at 7 a.m. However, the assignment ended up being one of the most unique I have covered, as I spent the morning climbing the steeple, winding a 100-year-old clock and helping to toil with the bell until it sounded just right.
Here's an except from the story I wrote about the steeple project:
On the morning that the bell was restarted, I scrambled up stories of rickety wooden ladders along with The Readings photography director Amy Sweeney. We reached the bell level and crawled through a hatch onto the open-air balcony, where the bell enjoys sweeping views of Reading.
“How high up are we?” I asked Levesque, the steeple construction guru. He replied that he doesn't keep track.
“If you go 20 feet you might as well go 120,” he said. “If you fall you're going to get hurt just the same.”
Levesque, along with his son and cousin, are clearly not afraid of heights. Part of the project included scrambling up the coppola to the highest point of the steeple to replace the weather vane at the very top, at least 150 feet above the town green.
Levesque is used to extreme working conditions and said that working on the Old South Church was a pleasure because of the people involved with the project.
“It helps to work with people that are enjoyable,” he said. “These guys were hands on and common sense prevailed.”
With a last-minute adjustment to the bell finished, we climb back into the hatch and down to the clock level. In the center of the small room levers in the clock's heart twirls and clicks. Long hands reach out to clock faces on four sides of the steeple.
“Want to wind it?” asks David Roberts. I take the long handle, and am surprised at how heavy the crank is to turn. After a few revolutions I hand the crank back to David, who completes the rest of the turns needed to keep the clock ticking each week.
Along with his brother James, David has been winding the clock at Old South Church since the 1970's. Every Friday afternoon, one of the brothers climbs up into the steeple and winds the clock 350 revolutions. As the clock is wound, weighted levers raise up through the steeple and drop as time passes during the week. The clock, which was built in 1912 is incredibly accurate, and it's intricacy is beautiful.
“It's a museum piece,” Weston said.
In the center of the steeple, levers turn, swinging a giant pendulum that reaches down to the floor of the level below. A zinc temperature compensating rod adjusts the length of the pendulum to make up for extreme temperatures in the uninsulated steeple. All of this happens without any electrical power.
“There's a lot of engineering in this thing,” Roberts said. “It's beautifully done.”
If anything can get in the way of the clock, it is nature. On stormy winter morning snow can build up on the north face, stopping the hands from turning. Occasionally, a fly or a lady bug will get caught in a gear and grin the whole clock to a halt, Roberts tells me as he pauses to catch his breath.
David and James Roberts tinker with the clock, and hands on all of the faces scramble into the correct position. The bell rings out, shaking the entire steeple, and the Old South Church's clock is back up and running.
“I'm very happy it's completed,” Weston said.
For Chloodian, who can hear the bell from her home and uses it to pace her day, the ringing has a deeper meaning. She is so passionate about the steeple project that when her grandparents died, she asked mourners to donate to the Reading Steeple and Bell Tower Fund in lieu of flowers.
“Now every time I hear it I think of them,” she said.
What about you? What hidden gems have you encountered lately?
Meanwhile, here's some of the other pieces I have been working on: During WWII, this father found a way to join his sons in the service, saying "If they've got my boys, they'll get me." On a much lighter note, this show at the North Shore Music Theatre was a great night out (and was my first theater review!). I got behind the screams at the biggest Haunted House in New England, and also took the photos that go with the story.
Yesterday I packed away my flip-flops and summer dresses, banishing the bright colors to a dark box and replacing them with thick cable-knit sweaters and knee-high boots. I was a little sad to say goodbye to summer, but when I put on a cozy long sleeve shift and accessorized with my favorite scarf - the one that had lain forgotten for months - I knew it would be alright.
I was never one to celebrate autumn. All fall meant to me was the end of summer and the upcoming snow - what was so great about that? But then when I studied in London I looked at the sprinkling of the colors in the trees with longing, and sought out the few leaves on the sidewalk to hear that familiar rustle and crunch. When it came time to pick a wedding date, the fall months jumped out at me. I wanted my husband's Australian family to see a the leaves change in New England. We can't compete with an Aussie summer, but we pass their fall by leaps and bounds.
Now, I've come to appreciate the fall as the change of seasons at its best. Crisp days, soft sunlight and a blaze of color everywhere you go. I hurry to the farmstand to see what new produce has been harvested this week, and I hoard Macoun apples by the bushel. I only with I could send them across the oceans so that my family abroad could taste a perfect little sample of autumn in New England - fresh, crisp and gone too soon.
What is your favorite season? Do you have any family traditions for the fall?
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