The turn around in my father's health in the last year has been nothing short of miraculous. In large part, that's because of the group home where he lives, which has given him top-notch care and enabling him to get back on his feet. I am incredibly passionate about sharing this story, and am thrilled to share it with the far-reaching audience at Vice.
"You father is all set to be released tomorrow," the social worker said, her voice cheery, as if this were good news.
And yet, as I heard those words, I was overcome with nausea. I sat in the May sunshine outside my New Hampshire home, pulling on new blades of grass, focusing on the small physical details of the lawn as I tried to maintain my composure. I lived out of state with an infant, and was unable to take my father in for both practical reasons (he would lose his Massachusetts state-sponsored medical insurance) and personal ones (I couldn't care for an ill father and an infant at once). My three siblings, all in their teens and early 20s, were just starting their lives—living abroad, launching a business, and going to college. None of us were equipped to handle our father's needs.
In that moment, my biggest worry—that my father was going to die—was replaced with a new, more pressing concern: Where would he live if he survived?
PLEASE read the rest of this important story on Vice, and share. People with mental illness are our loved ones and they need our advocacy.
Today is Harriet's second birthday, and my father's 53rd. She is currently outside running around with her Papa, a testament to the change she has brought into his life, and all of ours.
My daughter’s first birthday—my father’s 52nd—was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. I had to call and plead in order for the baby to be allowed to visit my father, speaking first with a nurse and then with the unit manager. Normally, children aren’t allowed beyond the locked doors that mark the start of the psychiatric wing.
“Please,” I begged. “It’s their birthday. Both of them.”
My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. I couldn’t celebrate the joy of her first year without thinking about the deep sorrow that year had held for my father. I couldn’t bear to celebrate another melancholy birthday with my dad, or find hope for his future, without the healing balm of my baby’s smile. After all, without the baby, we may all be forced to confront the lunacy of singing “Happy Birthday” to a man currently hospitalized for depression.
Read the rest of this story in Brain, Child Magazine's blog.
Last year, my husband and I bought our first home. When we crunched the numbers we realized that we were comfortable spending much less than the bank had approved us for. I talked to real estate and finance experts about why this is a good idea for this article on Daily Worth.
Since the 2008 financial crisis (which was fueled in large part by a real estate bubble), regulations have been put in place to cut down on predatory lending, most notably through the Title XIV of 2010's Dodd-Frank Act, which is called the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act. The act established national underwriting standards for residential loans, but some consumers are still approved for mortgages that are unrealistic for them when it comes to monthly payments.
Tasha Bishop, director of strategic alliance and business development at Apprisen, a financial services nonprofit sponsored in part by the United Way, estimates that about 35 percent of mortgages that are approved are unrealistic for consumers. What’s more: Many people “really trust the lender’s numbers and think that if they’re approved, they must be able to afford it,” Bishop says. But this isn’t always sound financial advice. Just because you can get approved for an expensive house doesn’t mean you should buy it.
Even with regulations in place, remember that banks are in the business of creating loans. Lenders “have incentives to give out mortgages, and to be positive and aggressive,” says Liz Miller, a certified financial planner and president of Summit Place Financial Advisors in New Jersey. Be skeptical and look out for your own interests. To avoid taking on more than you can handle, here’s what to keep in mind during the home loan process — and why you shouldn’t hit the top of your approved price range.
Read the rest of the story at Daily Worth.
"C'mon baby, let's go."
I hear myself and cringe. My foot presses the lock on the stroller and I double back toward my toddler, who lags about 20 feet behind me.
"What did you find?" I ask, watching as she sifts through layers of damp leaves. In the distance, the dog sprints from tree to tree, determined to cover more ground than we will.
Of course, the pace of life changes when you have a baby. But even a few months ago we would cover miles in this park, my daughter tied contently to my back and my legs carrying us through the thick woods.
Now things have changed. We're on toddler time. We've been walking for 20 minutes and have not even made it out of the parking lot.
"Buddy, bring me a stick," I say to the dog, accepting that he won't be tired out by our walk alone. As I toss it to him, I praise each leaf, rock and stick that my daughter picks up. We never make it out of the parking lot.
On the way home, I begin making a plan. We'll eat lunch, and then its naptime. Time to compress a day's work into two hours, if I'm lucky. I eat and pee before the baby falls asleep so that I don't need to waste any of that precious time. Forty minutes for an edit test for a new website. Another forty if I would like to write for them as well. I'm swift and focused, moving through each task with clipped precision. With seven minutes left on the timer, a cry breaks my focus. I quickly wrap up the test, submit it and walk to the nursery.
Being a mom - especially a working mom, and even more so one that works from home - is all about balancing. Sometimes that balance looks more like juggling. I'm learning that the key to keeping everyone happy is knowing when to speed through the to-do's, and when to just take it slow.
In the afternoon we go for another walk. We make it half a block before my daughter spots a sewer drain.
"Wow," she says.
I smile to myself, finding joy in her wonder. I sit down on the side of the road and find rocks for her to toss into the abyss. I don't know whether we are there for 20 minutes or 45. I just wait until the novelty has worn out, and that little voice says, "All done."
Last year I spent my Mother’s day waiting.
I was just fifteen days away from meeting my daughter – although at the time I didn’t know that – and the end-of-pregnancy expanse stretched infinitely before me. I was waiting to kiss ten little toes, and to inhale that special scent that only newborns have. Most of all I was waiting to assume the identity I had been looking forward to taking on for my whole life – mother.
Now that baby bump is toddling around the house, causing a remarkable amount of chaos for an 18-pound being. My daughter has been constantly transforming over the last year – from a docile infant into cooing baby, and now into a headstrong toddler who knows just what she wants.
Mother is such a strong role in our culture; moms are praised for being giving and selfless, the backbones of our families. Last year, I couldn’t wait to become enmeshed in that role, learning from my mom and my grandmothers. I was waiting for a magical change to wash over me, and yet when I finally emerged from the sleepless nights and relentless nursing sessions I was surprised to realize I was still myself.
“Oh my god, you’re somebody’s mom,” a friend said when we met for drinks recently. “That’s so weird.”
Weird indeed. This past year has been at once strange and completely natural. I love my daughter, and am amazed how easily she has fit into my life. But at the same time, I’ve realized that I don’t define myself by my relationship to her. I am a mother, yes, but also a writer and a wife, and all the things I was before giving birth. I’ve added a passion, but I haven’t replaced any.
More importantly, I’ve realized that nurturing those passions is just as important as nurturing my little one. In order to be a woman that my daughter is proud of, I devote time to the things that make me feel strong, smart and healthy in mind and body.
This year, I’ve learned that just like any other humans, moms are multifaceted. They have likes and dislikes, hobbies and shortcomings. My new perspective has prompted me to ask the mothers in my life questions that don’t pertain to raising little ones (although they get plenty of those questions, too). I’ve had wonderful conversations, talking to my aunt about death and to my mom about relationships and identity. If anything, being a member of the mom “club” has let me humanize the mothers in my life, and connect with them on an even deeper level because of that.
Last year on Mother’s Day, I was heavily pregnant, suspended between two worlds – things as they were, and things as they would be. Not knowing what to expect, I focused on my hopes for myself:
I hope that I'll have taken time to be present, I wrote at the time. If life does fly by as quickly as they say, then there is no sense wishing any of it away… I hope that I will have been kind to myself… Most of all, I hope that in 25 years I will be surrounded by a loving family, just as I am today.
Looking back on my first year of motherhood, I realize this message was one I got right. During the first year you have little choice but to be present for the good and the bad, because it turns out the infant phase is as tough as they say. But it is also true that one smile from a troublesome baby can leave you feeling overcome with love, and muttering, “You are just too darn cute.” As for kindness – well, without the kindness of others, and the kindness to forgive myself for my shortcomings, the first year would have been impossible.
Today I’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day with my little family of three, and with my extended family, acknowledging aunts, sister and grandmothers. As we celebrate the contributions these moms have made to our family, I’ll also take a moment to appreciate them for their whole selves – real, beautiful, flawed individuals – just like me.
Ed Note: This article first appeared in Foster's Daily Democrat on Mother's Day.
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.
He slides open the screen, and walks into the breezeway, breathing heavily. After four weeks in rehab, Dad is home. He glances to the left, into the bedroom that is no longer strewn with dirty clothes and dishes. It’s unrecognizable. Discarded jeans have been replaced with fresh flowers, and a the smell of paint lingers in the air.
He doesn’t step in; doesn’t take a moment to consider the hours spent lovingly reconstructing his world that was in disarray. Instead, he yells a hello to his mother, sitting in front of the t.v., and walks out the door into the backyard.
Lighting a cigarette is a brave move for a man who has just spent four weeks in a rehabilitation hospital for a stroke. A warning sign, the doctor’s said. A wake-up call. Even when I listened to those words, handed like a gift beneath the fluorescent hospital lights, I knew they were false. Don’t hope, I told myself. Don’t build it up.
In the eight years since my father’s mental breakdown, I have run the gamut in terms of the effort I put in to his illness. Sometimes I am the dedicated daughter, stopping by daily to invite him to get out of bed and come on a walk. Just once, he shocked me by saying yes. That day we trudged through the spring mud, and jumped when a snake crawled across our path.
Other times, I try to let go; release my expectations; have none. How are you, may be a question, but I ask it without expecting a response. I become adept at holding conversations with myself, and try not to be offended when I walk in and my dad waves half-heartedly from the bed, before rolling over.
Depression doesn’t only crush it’s victims; it can crush their family and friends as well. Because if ever a disease lent itself to resentment, it is depression. It is watching a loved one slowly kill themselves. It is wanting nothing more than to scream, wake up, but knowing that that is far from that simple. It is watching Dad light that first cigarette, then another.
Once upon a time, my writing was my baby. I loved it, and lavished it with attention, and in my free time I couldn't wait to spend some quality time with it.
Then, I had a baby, and my writing was displaced. It wasn't just a matter of finding the time. More alarmingly, for the first time ever, I just didn't want or need to write. I wasn't writing online, or in my journals. The only writing I've been doing it the kind that pays my bills, because a job is a job.
I've always loved the Joan Didion quote, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking." For as long as I remember that's been true. Through my dad's mental health struggles, I wrote, and it was therapeutic. I wrote through my travels, and through my pregnancy. But then the desire was gone.
The last eight months have been a jolt, tougher than I could have imagined. With so much intensity day to day - the good, and the bad - it seemed impossible to write about what I was experiencing too. I just had to ride the wave, and live it here and now. And boy was I relieved to realize that other writers feel the same way. Sometimes, you just have to experience things, without worrying about finding the words to describe them.
Luckily, like most love affairs, the flame that has died down can spring back up with a little care and attention. And with all those month stored up, I should have plenty to say...
This week, the media is abuzz over the tragic death of Robin Williams. Like that of many celebrities before him, Williams' death has reignited the conversation over unpleasant subjects. But in this case, there was no skirting around the issue. No saying that maybe the overdose was accidental or he didn't mean it. No doubt that the beloved comedian committed suicide.
Patrick Kennedy, the son the late Ted Kennedy, spoke in Boston the day after Williams' death about how shockingly common suicide is: "In addition to Robin Williams… there were 100 other Americans who successfully took their life yesterday. There were 2,000 more who attempted suicide. Today, again, 100 Americans successfully took their lives," Kennedy said. "We have an epidemic in this country of untreated mental illness and addiction."
And it is playing out in more homes than you think. Living with a family member who is mentally ill, a loved one's suicide is something that is constantly in the back of my mind, tucked away and wrapped in cobwebs, amid the other dark things that I dread considering. Since I'm one of millions that love someone at risk, I'm sure I'm one of millions who worry.
Recently, I reached out to a writer that I know only online about doing a story on addiction. It was a shot in the dark, and despite knowing how common addiction and mental health are, I was shocked when she wrote back saying her family had tread those waters, and she was finally ready to write about it. The issues really are everywhere. And hopefully, again, the conversation will continue.
Note: There has been so much insightful material written in the wake of Robin Williams' death. This article on the link (or lack thereof) between creativity and mental illness caught my eye, because it is so different from most of the coverage. Mental illness is horrifying, and it's natural to want to find a silver lining - but it may not be the one we think, and in fact there may not be one at all.
Sometimes it is so easy to forget what's in our back yard. When I came back to visit New England when I was in Australia, I remember being wowed by the home I'd left behind. Somehow it's hard to see just how special a place is when you are there everyday.
I grew up reading "Blueberries for Sal," and having the romanticized idea of picking berries in the wild. Despite that, I can count on one hand the number of times I've gone picking.
Today I packed up the baby and a troupe of cousins and set out into the woods. The little ones were wowed that we could just walk along the trail, pick a berry and pop it into your mouth. By the end of the afternoon, the only arguments they were having were whether to make muffins, a pie or jam. No video games, no television, no structured play. Just some kids, out at home, picking blueberries.
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