Posts Tagged ‘Mental Illness’

The Thinker

When you live by the gun, don’t be surprised if you die by the gun

I am trying to think what else I can add to the billions of words posted on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Friday’s tragic and senseless mass murder of twenty children and seven adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and in Newtown, Connecticut. It was, of course, horrific and the sort of event that gives even those of us with strong stomachs a persistently queasy feeling. I could write another blog post about my revulsion of guns, or why we need to do more help to help the mentally ill, but of course I have written many of these in response to other sad events like this one. This one is especially egregious not just for the number of fatalities but that our most young children were the primary victims.

So yes, this is more tragic evidence that we need to do more to control guns in our society, and need to make special efforts to keep them away from mentally disturbed people. There are currently no laws that would have kept Adam Lanza from getting the guns he used to kill so many people including him. In particular, there are no laws prohibiting people without criminal records from possessing semi-automatic weapons. But it appears that it didn’t matter in his case. The guns came courtesy of dear old mom, 52-year-old Nancy Lanza, who also turned out to be Adam Lanza’s first victim.

According to various press articles, Nancy Lanza was one of these citizens who liked to pack a lot of heat at home. If paranoid schizophrenia runs in the Lanza family, perhaps Nancy had it first, because her house was not only her castle but also apparently her armory as well. She is one of probably millions of Americans who truly believe that the government (in this case Obama in general, but also the United Nations) was out to take away her freedoms. Just in case, she was prepared. Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo writes:

There’s been some level of mystery about just why Adam Lanza’s first victim, Nancy Lanza, had such a stock of weapons, particularly military style weapons like the .223 Bushmaster, the weapon we now know was actually used in the killings. She wasn’t just into guns. She was apparently stocked up for when the economy collapses and when everyone’s on their own with their guns.

It’s not hard to infer that Adam had some issues with his mother; otherwise presumably she would not be dead. Perhaps he was beyond typical mentally illnesses and was psychotic or on drugs or something. Perhaps after an extensive forensics investigation we will eventually understand the puzzle of Adam Lanza.

In some ways though it does not matter. If you want to commit mass murder, it’s obviously not too hard in America. But even if there were laws that were enforced to keep psychos like Adam Lanza away from lethal weapons, there are always trusty, law-abiding citizens like mom, paranoid about their own government and probably convinced via various right wing media that they needed to arm up now, with their lethal stash easily accessible that can be put to the wrong use.

I remarked before that the most likely person to kill you is someone you know personally, most likely someone you are related to through blood, marriage or a close relationship. Maybe keeping a handgun under your mattress will save your life, but chances are whoever is planning to kill you knows you have a gun, has a good idea where it is and plans to take you unaware. That’s most likely what happened to Nancy Lanza. All that lethal armature meant nothing because she was caught off guard. And that’s generally how these homicides happen. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, that’s where it would end. Nancy would be dead, Adam would hopefully be convicted, and the incident would have been buried near the back of Newtown’s newspaper. But Adam found some reason to keep murdering after killing mother. And thanks to mom, her .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and of course her large supply of ammunition he had the ready means to unleash mayhem.

The price of paranoia is ever more paranoia and it seems that little can be done to temper paranoid tendencies. When your mindset is survival, even when your life is not really in danger from vapid external forces, instead of living a normal life you live a life that is fear based. And it likely carries an emotional impact. It’s speculation of course, but if I grew up with parents that believed the government was close to imposing totalitarianism and kept closets of weapons and bullets handy, I’d likely pick that up as a value too, and carry it into adult life. Perhaps despite the fact that Adam clearly had issues with Mom, he picked up that value from her, much like so many of us chooses our parents’ religion in adult life.

I believe the murders of Nancy Lanza and twenty-six other people in Newtown, Connecticut is to some extent due to a culture of mistrust and paranoia that pervades so many Americans. This paranoia causes people to give money to the NRA, which petitions for ever-looser gun control laws and gives rare but sizable opportunities to the psychos of the world like Adam Lanza to conduct egregious and murderous rampages.

Those of us who are for gun control are not for it just because we think that guns are dangerous, which they are. We are for it because we realize we need to set values for our society that we can and should all live together peacefully, and that we can trust each other and our government. When you pack a lot of heat at home and keep your closet flush with ammunition, your values are saying that you don’t trust your government or your neighbors, at least not enough to give up your weapons and let the police department deter and prosecute crimes. You are spreading a toxic culture of paranoia that murders.

The tragic irony in this case is that the paranoia Nancy Lanza felt in her heart came back to kill her. Those who live by the gun should be prepared to die by the gun. I feel safer knowing that I am contributing to a safer society because there are no guns in my house, and never will be.

 
The Thinker

Most mass murders are preventable. For God’s sake, let’s prevent them.

Yesterday, another pointless mass slaughtering of innocents occurred. Six people were murdered this time, plus the gunman who was shot by police, at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The assassin (no point calling him alleged, as he is dead) is Michael Page, a forty-year-old Army veteran, a member of an Army psychological unit that was never deployed. Some news sources are suggesting that Page was a white supremacist. Most likely he wasn’t a very bright white supremacist for choosing Sikhs as victims. Most white supremacists are far more concerned about allegedly radical Muslims than Sikhs, who are a largely peaceful religion primarily from India that believes in one immortal being and the ten gurus. But they wear towels on their head, so that probably looked Muslim enough for Page. We’ll probably never know for sure why he targeted Sikhs, but their main crime seems to be they were not Caucasians like him.

About three weeks earlier, the white Caucasian pulling the trigger was allegedly James Eagan Holmes, 26, a recent dropout from the University of Colorado’s PhD neuroscience program. He killed twelve people and injured 58 others at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado with semiautomatic weapons and bullets purchased in part over the Internet. Shortly before he dropped out he was apparently receiving counseling from a psychiatrist at the university, who was so alarmed she brought his case to the attention of campus authorities. However, the campus lost interest as he had dropped out. Holmes acquired a huge lethal arsenal and over three thousand rounds of ammunition, all without a background investigation. He would have killed many more had not police discovered that he had booby-trapped his apartment.

And so it goes. On January 8, 2011 it was Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) who took a bullet to the brain at the hands of alleged assassin Jared Lee Loughner, 23, also a Caucasian white guy. Giffords was fortunate to survive, but her injury eventually meant resigning her seat in Congress and years of rehabilitation therapy that is still underway. Loughner shot 18 people, six of whom died at a Tucson Safeway. While he did not kill Giffords, he did manage to kill a federal judge. Like Holmes, Loughner had a traumatic incident in his personal life. He underwent a personality change after he was fired from a job at a local Quiznos. He was known to abuse alcohol and took hallucinogens. His firearm was purchased legally at a local Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson. Loughner is expected to plead guilty tomorrow to these shootings. He is considered mentally ill and is required to take an anti-psychotic medication.

Of course who could possibly forget the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, a shooting that killed 32 and injured 17 others? It stands as the worst mass murder by an individual in the United States. While the incident occurred in Blacksburg, Seung-Hui Cho grew up close to where I live in Northern Virginia. He attended Poplar Tree Elementary School down the street in Chantilly, and Westfield High School, also in Chantilly, where my daughter graduated the year of the incident. Cho had seen many mental health experts, had been on antidepressants and creeped out more than a few of his professors.

The United States is lucky to go a year without a mass murder episode. Some of them get little press. Four days before the Aurora shooting, twelve to 18 people were injured by gunman Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. If the incident made the paper, it was buried deep in the back somewhere. Maybe that no one actually died made it un-newsworthy. To pick a few recent mass shootings: 4 dead and 7 injured by Eduardo Sencion in Carson City, Nevada on September 6, 2011 and 13 killed and 4 injured in Binghamton, New York, my home town, by Jiverly Antares Wong on April 3, 2009. Wikipedia keeps a current list if you are curious. By my count the grisly total is: thirty murdered since 2010 and 82 from 2000-2009, and these are just the rampage killers. School massacres like Virginia Tech, workplace killings and hate crimes are not included.

Certain themes show up in these murderers. For the ones that tend to be most newsworthy, the perpetrators tends to be white, male, in their prime testosterone years and mentally ill. Mass murder though seems to be almost exclusively a guy thing, principally a white guy thing. Maybe women lack the crazy gene. Most of these mass murders probably were preventable. I will grant you that our loose, albeit almost nonexistent gun laws, make it difficult to impossible to keep these crazies from acquiring weapons. In the Aurora, Colorado shooting, had semi-automatic weapons been controlled, the death rate would have been markedly lower. Even I belatedly agreed that strict gun control is impossible in this country, but I would like to think that even the NRA would agree that people with severe mental illnesses should not be allowed to acquire weapons. Yes, perhaps they could get them from illicit sources, but we should not make it easy for them to get. These people should be in known databases. To alleviate the concern that regular citizens would be put in the database, perhaps getting added to the database would require the signatures of three psychiatrists.

But guns don’t kill people (unless they smash their heads in with a rifle’s butt), but bullets sure do. James Holmes acquired 300 rounds of ammunition and no one blinked an eye. More importantly, no one was tracking the fact that one dude in a short period of time acquired this much ammunition, or that there was something unusual about the semi-automatic weapons he acquired so quickly too. If all gun sales were in a database, it would be easy enough to search it for unusual cases, and if it were cross-indexed with a list of people with mental psychoses then the Holmes case should have stood out like a red flag. Exactly how are gun rights diminished if we were to enact laws like this? Are we really agreeing that every psychotic should have unlimited access to firearms and rounds of ammunition?

While guns and bullets allow these murders to occur easily, in most cases the catalyst is mental illness. Mental illness is at least required to be treated by health insurance plans but we still have fifty million people uninsured. There are fewer stigmas to treating mental illness these days, but we should press for even less of them. Even if you can be treated, as was true in Seung-Hui Cho’s case, mentally ill adults can refuse treatment. Cho’s case was truly extreme: red flags were everywhere. Particularly with cases this severe, it is reasonable for society to require these individuals stay in treatment, both for their own safety and for society’s safety as well, unless a board of psychiatrists clears the person.

Our world is growing more crowded and complex. Our highly industrialized, information-centric world does affect us in ways that are hard for us to understand. Denser communities raise the number of human interactions, making trouble more likely. The Internet, while it has lots of advantages, also allows mentally ill people license to feed their psychoses. Sociologists need to study the effects of Future Shock, well underway, and it needs to be come part of a public policy discussion. Ignoring these realities simply means that more of us will die needlessly from future and preventable acts of mass violence. It also means those with these mental illnesses are less likely to keep their conditions under control.

George Santayana said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s one thing to forget lessons from events that happened generations ago. It is another thing to forget events that happened last week or last month and not learn from them. It is the height of public policy stupidity.

 
The Thinker

Review: Next to Normal at the Kennedy Center

There were dueling musicals playing Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. We found ourselves in the Eisenhower Theater watching the rock musical Next to Normal, the story of a woman caught in bipolar disorder. Right next-door in the Opera House was the musical Wicked, which we had caught in Chicago way back in 2005, is still going strong and based on people hanging outside the theater, is still attracting its share of devoted groupies.

It would be hard to put two stranger musicals side by side. Wicked is a glitzy but largely empty-headed musical fantasy on the world of Oz with a mixture of pretty good to great music, a so-so story, lots of costumes and numerous scene changes. On the other hand, Next to Normal is a modest musical with just one set (on three levels), a small cast, zero special effects and is anchored in the present day. Wicked is a fun musical; Next to Normal is a downer of a musical and, if you have dealt with mental illness in your family, it will also feel uncomfortably familiar. Yet surprisingly, Next to Normal emerged from off Broadway, made a previous appearance here in Washington at Arena Stage, went on Broadway, won a number of Tony Awards and is now on tour. Its success may be due in part to the crushing number of people and families struggling with mental illness.

No question about it, Diana Goodman is a mess of a woman. Life for her is largely dysfunctional. Some part of her seems like a normal housewife until she does strange or harmful things like making sandwiches on the floor or deciding to slice her wrists. Such as it is, her life involves taking pills and talking to psychiatrists. “Success” is achieved when she is so medicated she feels almost nothing. Yet she realizes that her medicated world is a false world, and sings as much in one of the songs, I Miss the Mountains. Her mental illness is so consuming that it squeezes all other life out of her small family’s existence.

Her dutiful husband Dan (Asa Somers) spends his life closely monitoring his psychotic wife, and hopes for days or weeks of something resembling normal (It’s Gonna Be Good). Only there is no normal in this house. Diana is like a bull in a china shop, and has no idea of the emotional devastation she is inflicting on her husband or her estranged daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton). Natalie, an overachieving high school student, is devastated by her mother’s emotional absence from her life. Her father cannot do much to fill the gap. He is too busy playing the role of dutiful caregiver to Diana. It’s a role that leaves him emotionally devastated too, as well as exhausted and suffering from something akin to post traumatic stress disorder. He is always on edge, always trying to keep his family from imploding, and always wondering when his wife’s next crazy episode will arrive. It is hard not to sympathize with Dan, a truly nice guy who must live life keeping a stiff upper lip.

As the musical unfolds it is easy to see that Diana’s mental illness is catching. Natalie is pursued by Henry, who enjoys listening to her music and grows to love her, but not in a healthy way. Rather, Henry senses she is emotionally vulnerable, and like her father wants to play the role of catching her when she falls. Meanwhile, Natalie starts channeling her mother. An episode that puts her mother in the hospital pushes her over the edge, and she begins taking some of her mother’s medicines to try to escape her less than ideal reality. Overseeing everything is Gabe, the cause of Diana’s psychosis. Gabe was her son. The real Gabe died at eight months of an unseen intestinal blockage, but he lives on as a creature from the Id in Diana’s mind. It is the powerful image of Gabe, as a rebellious teenager (played by Curt Hansen), that symbolizes Diana’s desire to live life on her own terms. She wants to break free from the world of medications and psychiatrists, as long as she can feel again. Gabe is really something of the central character of the musical, usually onstage and providing commentary and temptation. The baby Gabe may have died long ago, but his projection lives on and pulls the whole family into his massive gravity well of pain and hurt.

Shrinks also play an important counterweight in the musical, as they fruitlessly try to move Diana into a place of healing. Even the best shrink in town, Dr. Madden (Jeremy Kushnier) finds he has his hands full with her, and eventually recommends electroconvulsive therapy, which has the effects of making her forget most of her past.

In our performance, Alice Ripley played Diana, who originated the part and won a Tony for her role. Presumably Ripley could sing better on stage than she does, because her raspy alto voice mirrors the pain within her character. Her voice was the only off note (but presumably a deliberate one) to a fast flowing, depressing yet riveting musical. While allegedly a rock musical, it doesn’t particularly sound like one. The music has songs that are definitely come out of rock, but others that sound more like pop or easy listening than rock. As with Rent (and this was directed by the same man who directed Rent, Michael Greif), the orchestra, such as it is can be found on the stage, almost characters themselves.

Looking around at the audience I got the sense that many were dealing with mental illness in their own lives. We know today that mental illness is a huge problem, so it would not surprise me if many of the mentally ill and/or their families found some identity and therapy in the musical.

It would be nice if the musical had a happy ending, and it does sort of resolve things, just not in a neat and tidy package. At least for a brief time the characters find a breathing space of sorts, and as the show’s title suggests, a place next to normal where something close to normality can be sampled.

This is obviously an adult themed show and not appropriate for small children. It is one of the few musicals to explore inner rather than outer worlds and in my mind a lot more meaningful than the fun but vapid production of Wicked next door.

(P.S. Also watch Garden State, a terrific movie, much more lighthearted but with a similar theme.)

 
The Thinker

Republicans are a party of sadists

If Democrats are a bunch of bleeding heart, do-good tree huggers (which sadly, we are not), it is clear that modern Republicans are pretty much the opposite. They may put on great smiles, but underneath that plastic veneer are a whole lot of seriously hurting and angry people who basically are sadists.

In case you are not familiar with the term, sadists take pleasure in the infliction of mental and emotional pain on others. Being sadistic is not considered a virtue; it is considered a mental illness. Strangely, particularly in our bizarre modern times, Republicans do consider sadism virtuous. It is witnessed by the preponderance of Republicans and conservatives who were all for waterboarding and other forms of torture in our War on Terror.

In fact, some of the leading sadists come out of the conservative Christian community. Have you noticed? Yeah, it puzzles me too. I always thought Christians were for the poor and oppressed and wanted to relieve misery. Just a few of the Christian dominated conservative organizations that are opposed to health care reform include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Freedom Federation and American Values. The consequences of no health care reform are inescapable: health care will become more and more unaffordable, putting more people into misery, poverty and early death, and principally those near the bottom of the income scale. When you advocate policies that hurt and make miserable people you do not know or like, you are being sadistic.

The thing is most sadists enjoy inflicting pain and misery only on people they know personally. Republicans are taking it national, to people they don’t really know and in many cases just imagine. Take ultra-conservative TV show host Glenn Beck. Before he joined Fox “News” he worked for a radio station, B104 in Baltimore. What is more, Beck admits he was a sadist.

Today, when Beck wants to illustrate the jerk he used to be, he tells the story of the time he fired an employee for bringing him the wrong pen during a promotional event. According to former colleagues in Baltimore, Beck didn’t just fire people in fits of rage — he fired them slowly and publicly. “He used to take people to a bar and sit them down and just humiliate them in public. He was a sadist, the kind of guy who rips wings off of flies,” remembers a colleague.

Now that his audience is national, he appears to be in remission. In case you missed it, among Beck’s latest sadistic antics was this one where at first he appeared to boil a live frog.

As I noted back in 2007, Fox “News” commentator Bill O’Reilly is a bully with sadistic tendencies. He also has an explosive temper, both on and off the air. Yet in conservative circles, sadistic tendencies are now a virtue which might get you into their Hall of Fame. Sadistic tendencies show you are serious, just like Hitler was dead serious about ridding the world of the Jews. Indeed, Beck is rising in the public spotlight based on his sadistic notoriety. It’s like conservatives on TV and radio are holding a contest to see who can be the most sadistic and outrageous.

Fueling the sadism of course is anger, anger that must be expressed. When it is expressed in creative ways, such as pretending to boil a live frog, it gets publicity and weird interviews with Katie Couric. Even people who are not sadistic by nature might be drawn to watch Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck just to see what crazy sadistic antics they try on a particular day. (I am betting most of these people also watch TV reality shows.) While they are watching, of course, they will get plenty of propaganda. Their hope is that these viewers will make a regular habit watching them and, perhaps in time, enter the black and white world of the Dittoheads.

Perhaps it was Ronald Reagan who most recently started the whole mess, although clearly the underpinnings of this movement go back well before the rise of the John Birch Society. When Reagan first ran for president in 1976, he railed against welfare queens who he was sure were living the high life on the public dole. There was virtually no basis in fact for these allegations, but it made for an easy piñata that conservatives could bash. Given how miserable the economy was doing at the time, alleged welfare queens also made an easy target to advance a larger power agenda.

What was really needed in 1976, and is needed today in our sour economy, was some perspective. In 1976, anger against welfare queens was not the real issue; it was our rampant inflation instead. Our country was rapidly changing for the worse in a new global economy that we were not ready for. Today, the welfare queen may have been replaced with illegal immigrants clogging our emergency rooms, or illusory death panels of government bureaucrats, but their anger is real enough. When you feel angry inside, at some point you have to express the anger, at least you do if you have a short fuse. Naturally, the last place you will look for the source are some defects inside yourself. I am sure this anger has nothing to do with the way their Dads were so liberal with the use of the belt on their backsides.

So just why are conservatives so angry with Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular? Is it just racist feelings that explain their hatred of all things Obama? That is certainly part of the unstated animus, but only a small part of it. What really gets conservatives riled up is the unacknowledged fear that we have an administration and Congress that just might actually solve a couple of these chronic problems that people really care about. (As I pointed out in my last post, I am not particularly hopeful that Democrats will succeed.) After all, should Americans choose a government run plan over private insurance, and should it be fashioned like Medicare, they might like minor conveniences like not having to hassle with paperwork and knowing that they might be able to afford to be sick. Moreover, that might mean they would want more policies like these, and more Democrats voted into office. Eventually Republicans might devolve into a wholly inchoate bunch.

The truth is, Republicans today pretty much are an inchoate bunch but they are making a hell of a lot of noise. Hurricanes are very loud too and leave a lot of devastation in their wake. When you go from welfare queens, who just might possibly exist in some weird and exceptional case, to government sanctioned death panels trying to kill grandma, it is clear that people like Sarah Palin are not playing with a full deck. The best you can say for them is that their sense of rage has temporarily overtaken their ability to reason based on the known facts. The worst you can say is that they are loose cannons. The last thing you want to do is put one of these impulsive people on the deck of the ship of state. The next thing you know they will be worrying their next-door neighbors are Martians because their next-door neighbor looks like Uncle Martin Martin from My Favorite Martian. This would mean, of course, given their tortured logic, that America is covertly up to its armpits in Martians, and, by the way, Martians look upon us the same way we look upon a juicy steak.

Seriously, if anyone needs health care reform, Republicans need it, and make sure it includes mental health benefits. Many of these folks can no longer discern reality from fantasy. Their world is apparently one full of endless subterfuge where someone is always out to get them or some member of their clan. Perhaps if there is some intelligence behind their hatred of health care reform, it is their hope that by maintaining the status quo we will end up with a nation of paranoid village idiots, just like them. When everyone is pointlessly paranoid, just like them, then perhaps they can relax a bit. Somehow, I doubt that will calm their restless souls.

I know that if I were Glenn Beck’s physician, I would be writing him a prescription for Valium and when he is calm enough send him to a good head shrinker. Chances are he will in there a long time.

 
The Thinker

Our stressed out nation

Didn’t you suspect this all along?

Scientists reported yesterday that they have uncovered a biological switch by which stress can promote obesity, a discovery that could help explain the world’s growing weight problem and lead to new ways to melt flab and manipulate fat for cosmetic purposes.

….

Moreover, the stressed-out junk-food eaters put on the worst kind of fat — deposited around the abdomen and laced with hormones and other chemical signals that promote illness. After three months, the animals became obese and developed the constellation of health problems that obese humans often get — high blood pressure, early diabetes, high cholesterol — an increasingly common condition known as metabolic syndrome.

I find a direct correlation between my weight and the amount of stress in my life. I bet the same is true with you. So the conclusion in this article was no surprise. When you are under stress, your body is in an abnormal state. Yet for many of us Americans, modern life is little but stress. Our employment often feels tenuous. Our marriages feel rocky. Our kids are difficult to manage. We work two or three jobs to pay the bills.

Therefore, we look for balms to relieve our stress. These are typically smoking, drinking, drugs and food. Of the four of these, the one that society frowns on the least is food. Unlike drugs, cigarettes and booze, food is both extremely convenient and inexpensive. You will not be carded for being underage and buying a box of Ding Dongs. Solutions to our stresses often involve more stress. If our marriage is under stress, to solve it we either have to endure months of painful and expensive marital therapy with high likelihood of failure or go through the trauma of divorce. If our children are grossly misbehaving, timeouts and a spanking are unlikely to solve the problem. Instead, they likely need to talk to social workers and psychiatrists. Often they will end up on antidepressants. Since their behavior affects Mom and Dad, they often end up on antidepressants too. However, since most stress is situational, treating stress by pill is no cure. At best, it offers only modest and temporary relief.

For many of us the best and cheapest therapy is a pet. Like Prozac, even the most devoted dog can only do so much. Therefore, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to buy that box of Krispy Kremes. A sugar high is easy to achieve and it feels so satisfying. Except of course, it is as successful at solving our stress as a bottle of booze. At best, it helps the stressful feelings recede for a few hours.

Maybe it is coincidence but as I travel America, I feel like I can accurately measure the stress level of a community by the average girth of its citizenry. Throughout much of the South and Midwest, Americans are noticeably more obese than elsewhere. Perhaps poverty in the South contributes toward its problem. Its culture probably contributes as well, which seems to emphasize a diet rich in empty carbohydrates. The filmmaker Michael Moore is quite obese and was raised in Flint, Michigan. Since my wife is also from Flint and we have relatives in the state, we visit Flint periodically. I note no lack of an obesity crisis in Northern Virginia where I live. Even so, when I go to Flint I feel appalled. With the auto industry in permanent decline, the city slipping more and more into stagnation with the passage of each year, it seems Flint’s biggest surplus is in obese people. The residents of Flint seem to have an unhealthy attraction to greasy spoons and donut shops.

As I noted in 2005, there are no lack of greasy spoons and donut shops in Canada either. You can hardly drive a mile without passing a Tim Horton’s donut shop, for which residents of Ontario seem to have an almost unnatural affection. (There is sound reason for their affection; we dined there twice.) I have seen Tim Hortons crowded even during off hours. Yet, at least around the Toronto area, I saw markedly fewer obese people than just a hundred miles away in Buffalo.

Last summer when we visited Paris I was struck by the absence of obese and overweight people. In America the typical person is more likely to be overweight than not. In Paris, you have to look for them. My belief is that because the French in general live less stress-filled lives than Americans do, they have less need to use food to cope with stress. With their nationalized health care system, they never have to worry about whether they can afford to see a doctor. Their law requires a minimum of five weeks of vacation per year. Their national holidays are also more plentiful than ours are. Downtime and safety from many of life’s worst shocks are built into their culture. As a result, the French seem to have institutionalized a form of living that minimizes stress. So, like the mice who were not subjected to stress in the study, I am not surprised that the French look so good. (As I noted then, I think this is partly because Parisians get more exercise than we do. They burn off plenty of calories just walking to and from mass transit. They are less likely to commute by car than we are.)

Our American values emphasize self-reliance. It is practically a religion. We see living by our wits as a competitive advantage. While it may have its benefits, I think it is clear that this form of living also has a dark side. We can see it manifested in our exploding girths. Just the comfort of knowing that we have universal health insurance may do more to combat our obesity crisis than a stack of surgeon general reports.

While I think self-reliance is a terrific virtue, I also note that Europeans with their nationalized health care systems and more socialized governments live longer and have less stress-filled lives than Americans have. You have to look hard for a Western European country with life expectancy rates comparable to the United States (Denmark and Portugal). In France, you are likely to live two years longer than in the United States, despite the fact that most of the French smoke. In Germany, one year longer. In Spain, two years longer. In Switzerland, two and a half years longer. In Canada, with its socialized medicine and rampant numbers of frequently patronized Tim Horton’s donut shops, Canadians live nearly two years and a half years longer than we do.

The common denominator in these countries is that they have institutionalized methods that reduce unnecessary stress on its population. Living by your wits, which is what humans did for most of their existence, reduces lifespan.

For a country that claims to value life, perhaps we can demonstrate it by inculcating a culture that supports it. Perhaps it is time to change our values.

 
The Thinker

Inheriting the baggage too

For those who are wondering, my mother’s funeral was quite lovely. While it would not be accurate to say everyone had a good time, it went about as good as a funeral could go. The music was lovely and touching. The priest gave a simple but heartfelt sermon that hit all the right notes. After the funeral mass, many stayed for the eulogies. Most of us children had words to say publicly; you may have read mine already. Tears were shed, but the tears were as much from laughter as of sorrow. When we remembered my mother’s little eccentricities, we could not help but laugh. Afterwards we repaired to one of the restaurants in Riderwood for a nice luncheon reception. My Mom must have been disappointed that she had not prepared the food.

My friend Courtney attended and saw my family at its full size for the first time. She remarked how much my family looks alike. She is right. You would be hard pressed to find any family where the siblings looked so much the same. Perhaps it was her remark that had me watching my own family, small though it may be. Before the service, my wife and daughter largely sat by themselves on a bench. There were plenty of people to talk to, but they preferred to stay quiet and silent rather than seek out conversation. I found myself greeting arrivals at the door to the chapel. I am learning to be gregarious, but it does not come naturally. Part of me wanted to be sitting on the bench with them.

The patter continued during the luncheon after the service. My nieces were at a table together laughing and sharing memories. And there was my wife and daughter, at a table by themselves. I joined them, but eventually mingled. This was, after all, family. Many I had not seen in years. The time I have with them is precious because we are so geographically separated. Why would I want to distance myself from them, particularly at such a turning point in our lives? Why would my wife and daughter? It is not as if they have not had plenty of time over the years with my side of the family and feel comfortable with everyone.

One thing is for sure: neither my wife nor I are extraverts. We tend to prefer the pleasure of a good book to a social gathering. If I must engage socially, I prefer small groups of people that I know. Still, there was a time when my daughter was popular. From ages 6-9, she was definitely the popular girl on the block. She was our amazing social butterfly. Girls were constantly knocking on our door, streaming into her bedroom or wanting them to come to their house. She was the nexus of a complex social, preteen network. It seemed more normal to send her to a sleepover on a weekend then not. She changed, but I do not know why. Now my daughter seems more like a cloistered nun than a social butterfly. Yes, she does have her friends, principally the “losers” (social outcasts) at school. Mostly they share her ambiguous sexual feelings and aversion to all things trendy. However, it is a small group of genuinely good teens. They meet irregularly in person. Most of their conversations are on IM, not in person.

Having twenty family members in the house for the wake was a bit much for her. She said a few polite words and then scurried out of sight into her room. The door remained closed until they were gone. Like her mother and I she likes to write. Still, it seemed more than a bit odd that she would disappear like this. She does this quite often. This girl, once so popular and the block extrovert, has morphed into the block introvert.

What happened? I am sure there were many factors. She had friends who got weird on her. They experimented tragically with drugs and sex, things that were not her scene. Yet on another level, I think she was also just modeling her parents. It is unfair to say we never host parties, but the last real party in our house was in 1999. My wife and I do attend parties once or twice a year. Yet invariably we don’t stay too long. Usually an hour or so before anyone else is even thinking of leaving my wife is tugging at my sleeve: let’s go. It usually does not take much persuading for me to leave either. Especially if it is a large group of people I do not know I find myself fumble mouthed and fumble footed. Somehow, I missed the class on successful social navigation. Few things terrify me more than having to go to a party full of strangers then have to make casual conversation. Therefore, I generally avoid it. Give me home. Give me peace and quiet.

Nevertheless, I am starting to come out. It may be a modest midlife renaissance, but it is a start. My new job has its social aspects. I have learned to swim in it. I do this a lot on business trips. I am usually with a group of 8-12 people. We spend the day in meetings and the evenings at restaurants. Most of these people I now know a bit more than casually. I do not find it too burdensome. In fact, I am finding it kind of fun. It used to be that as soon as business was over I was anxious to run to my hotel room. Now half the time I find I want the conversation to linger. Perhaps that is a good sign.

However, most likely my engrained habit toward introversion will never wholly recede. It is too comfortable. Likely one of the reasons I fell in love with my wife was that she was a shy introvert like me. There would be no need to worry about having to fend for myself in big parties if I married her! Now I am starting to understand that my daughter has modeled our behavior. I do not think that she intended to model us, but she did nonetheless. Just like Mom and Dad, her most comfortable times seem to be in her room, alone.

If it were just her introversion, perhaps this would be no more than coincidence. She is currently half way through her teenage years. What I am now seeing is more like a perfect meld of my wife and myself, rather than the free and independent spirit I had hoped to raise. I find it spooky sometimes. Neither my wife nor I were first in line in the dating business. Maybe we had self-image problems, or we carried from childhood a latent shyness. While I wanted to be dating but seemed to lack the courage, my daughter explicitly chooses to shy away from intimate relationships. Perhaps it comes from witnessing some of her friends self-destruct in these relationships. In addition, I think that she picked up that this was an area of tenderness in her parents, so she was supposed to model it.

I am beginning to perceive something that should have been blazingly obvious. While children are not intellectually sophisticated, they are excellent readers of other people. Perhaps since they learn to talk through learning to read emotions, they become very adept at understanding people’s body languages and the complex subtext to daily living. Most of this emotional intelligence I think is buried in their subconscious, so they are not explicitly aware of it. Since we parents are a constant presence in their lives, we model a version of reality that for them, after a while, seems entirely natural. It is more than religion that our children pick up from us parents. It seems to be pretty much everything. Even in areas where our children seem to be a contrast to their parents, it appears that (in my daughter’s case) it is picked to deliberately highlight the contrast.

My shyness is her shyness. My self-image problems are also hers. My feelings of toxic shame she also seems to carry forward in her life. And it goes on and on.

Perhaps all this comes from genetics. I am skeptical about this line of reasoning. Had foster parents raised her, I suspect she would have modeled them, instead of us. I do not know whether to be flattered or to be upset. Overall, I probably lean more toward the upset side. I raised her to be an independent thinker: so why is she as a liberal as I am? If she has to inherit attributes of me, why could she not pick just my good attributes and not the bad ones? Why would I want traits like my feelings of guilt to be carried over to another generation?

In retrospect, what could I have done differently to change any of it? I really do not know. Perhaps if I had been less a presence in her life, she might have turned into someone quite different. Instead, I played the dutiful and loving father role. I am sure it has many positive aspects. Somehow, my lesser aspects came along for the ride, as did my wife’s.

On the plus side, my daughter inherits our creative instincts and strong intelligence. These characteristics will serve her well in the future. She will have to work through a few issues though. I suspect my self-esteem is higher than my wife’s is. Which will she carry into adulthood? My wife is much more the bookworm than I am. Will she pick up my wife’s love of literature and always have a book in her hands? On the other hand, will she be like dear old Dad, read newspapers, and skim the media for content? Does it matter?

Time will tell. She is rapidly moving toward adulthood. Nevertheless, I do not think what my daughter went through is at all unique. I strongly suspect her friends are engaging in similar and mostly largely unconscious behavior emulation of their parents too. As I ponder my own mother’s death and try to understand the gifts she left me, I also realize some baggage came with her gifts. I hope that when my turn comes to leave this planet I will have left her with more gifts than baggage.

 
The Thinker

Resilient

Business travel has its ups and downs. The location may change but the script does not change much. In my case, I spend my days in meeting rooms. My lunches and evenings are spent hanging out with the same people with whom I am meeting. Not surprisingly over time, I learn much more about the people I am traveling with than I expected. Familiarity and much conversation yield intimate insights into someone you would never otherwise have. Perhaps the mere fact that we see each other so rarely yields a safe space where we feel freer to disclose intimate facts about ourselves.

Because I have not done a great job of it, I tend to admire people who overcome great adversity. Hearing how they surmounted their problems puts my own personal challenges in perspective. I have occasionally written an intimate entry or two about other people’s personal hells that I have stumbled across during my life’s journey. This story involves a woman with two daughters. Her husband was an alcoholic, deeply depressed and very suicidal. As you might expect his behavior was deeply toxic. Her two daughters were deeply affected by their father’s behaviors. I was not surprised to learn that as a result both her girls developed suicidal feelings too. The job of straightening out this situation fell squarely on her lap because no one else would deal with it.

As a result, she and her husband are now separated, likely forever. Her husband as well as her daughters are now in a much better space. Her husband is no longer suicidal but because his behavior was so toxic, she will not allow him to live with the girls again. Both girls have been in therapy. They are currently enmeshed in their chaotic and hormone laden teenage years. However, they both still have suicidal impulses from time to time. To cope she has spent years working part time to make sure she was around for her daughters when she was needed. Much of her free time is involved not just in making sure they successfully navigate through middle and high schools, but tending to their complex physical, emotional and mental needs. In short, she is a mother in the best sense of the world dealing adroitly with a complex situation for which she had no training.

I can relate. Mental health issues are out of the closet these days. I have had to deal with mental health issues in my family too, and I was often clueless about what to do in these circumstances too. I felt like I was probably the least capable person on the planet to deal with them. Fortunately, no one in my family has ever seriously considered suicide, let alone tried to act on them. This was fortunate for all of us because dealing with their issues I found extremely challenging. The effort largely consumed me. I was barely keeping up with their issues as they came forward.

Perhaps, like this woman, had my family had suicidal issues I too would have risen to the occasion. I like to think so. The reality for me was that hanging in there during challenging years exacted a heavy personal toll. At one point, I became depressed too. I had many days when I felt like I could just not deal with it for yet another day. Thoughts of escape became omnipresent. It no longer sounded so bad to be married to a Stepford wife. Humans tend to be such complex and multifaceted creatures. Moreover, each person that I knew intimately seemed to be a Pandora’s box of complex problems. I coped with by projecting a calm demeanor and a lot of bravado. On the inside, I was eaten up by these problems. Underlying it all was a heaping dose of guilt. I had promised in my marriage vows to support my wife. As a father, I was legally and morally bound to care for my daughter too.

The reality is that those with mental illnesses rarely recover completely. Fortunately, my family and I are in a better mental and emotional state now. I take some pride in hanging in there for them when they needed me. I hope my doggedness resulted in their recoveries. Seeing your intimates in a better space becomes the only reward. No one comes by to award medals for personal valor or to place a gold star on your forehead.

Therefore, I coped, as did the woman with whom I am traveling. There is one crucial difference between us though. She is resilient. While I hung in there because I had to, my life flirted with mental and physical exhaustion. She hung in there too but like a thoroughbred, she seems not quite so winded or exhausted by her experiences as I was by mine. And this makes me wonder where this inner strength comes from. It also makes me one of her secret admirers.

If you have seen pictures of the Dalia Lama, the spiritual head of Buddhism, you can get some idea of what it is like to see someone wholly at peace with themselves. The cares and concerns of the world buffet them too. Yet, the Dalia Lama is filled with a sense of peace, happiness and inner serenity that is unmistakable. The same is true with this woman. Her fundamental nature has not changed. She radiates an inner contentment and a serene joy in simply being alive. Life has both changed her yet somehow left her fundamentally the same. She exudes serenity, an inner personal happiness and a joy of living that is intoxicating. Being around her you cannot help but feel in the presence of a wholly positive spirit. Her smiles are genuinely beatific.

I wonder about the wellspring for this uncorrupted joy of life. Wherever it comes from, I need to drink from that well.

 
The Thinker

Pass the soma

Childhood obesity is now a major American problem. When they reach their twenties, many of today’s overweight youth will discover adult diabetes, something virtually unheard of before.

If only the new problems facing today’s youth were limited to obesity. In addition to the normal traumas of adolescence, there are a whole potpourri of new problems and issues for them to confront. Attention deficit disorder is rampant. Many of our youth do not have the organizational skills to manage their homework. Many cannot even study. (They know how to do it, but cannot seem to successfully follow the steps, or even summon the motivation.) It is no wonder that we parents are spending so much money getting them counseling, therapy and life coaches. Only it does not seem to be doing much to solve their problems.

The Future Shock predicted by Alvin Toffler is here and now and it is not pretty. The complexity of our world has increased exponentially in my lifetime, and it only continues to accelerate. We adults have a hard enough time getting through the minefield of living. It is far more confusing to our children. Not surprisingly, they are having a hard time adapting. Why? We need people that who behave like machines. Instead, we humans stubbornly insist on being human beings. In addition, the more complex life gets the bigger the disconnect. Like it or not we cannot retrofit bodies that for millennium were optimized for chores like farming and hunting mastodons into a species of cubicle dwellers.

Imagine what would happen to a thoroughbred that spent most of his life in the stall. Imagine if the supply of oats and water were plentiful and always readily available. Imagine if he only rarely got outside the barn, and once outside did not have the opportunity or inclination to run around. Most likely the thoroughbred would be obese and unhealthy.

Therefore, we really should not be surprised that our youth seem to be having a hard time coping with modern life. Our children are not living a natural life. They are living an unnatural life. For a human child a natural life would involve a lot of time spent outdoors, running around and exploring. I knew that sort of youth. The woods were less than a mile away and we were frequently in them. After school, we were outside playing ball, running around or having harmless “wars” with the other kids on the block. There was no Nintendo to distract us. We had no personal computers and could not even imagine the Internet. With so much time to fill, we created our own realities. We engaged the world because there was no other choice.

Today we are thrown together in increasingly dense communities. The streams are now underground in drainage pipes. Most of us modern parents cannot allow our children to play unsupervised. There are too many wackos and perverts out there. We imagine them lurking around every corner targeting our children. Our youth live highly managed and busy lives. As parents, our mission seems to be to never given them a moment’s rest. How could we? This modern world is so complex. There is so much they must learn and not enough time to learn it. We know the anxiety first hand because we live in it. Therefore, we push our children hard.

Just the idea of our children growing up technologically impaired gives us the heebie jeebies. Therefore, in addition to the compulsory game machines they have their own computers, PDAs, cell phones and fat pipes to the Internet. So naturally, when they have something resembling downtime, they are sending text messages and IMing friends instead of playing ball in the street. When my daughter is on the Internet she often has a half dozen chat windows open at the same time. She has the message: in this modern world, you must be able to multitask.

If we were a more enlightened society then perhaps we would demand no more complexity to our lives. We might even insist on regression. Perhaps we would be petitioning Congress to unplug us from the Internet and take away our computers. Perhaps we would go back to slide rules, logarithm tables, black and white televisions, typewriters and carbon paper. Perhaps we would be limiting our children to one per family so future generations could enjoy something resembling nature again.

In truth, Future Shock has been around since the early 19th century. It began with the start of the Industrial Revolution. The problem is that it is only getting worse. With each generation, it gets harder to push us square peg humans into the round holes of modern living. We must all live by our wits now. If we do not then we will not survive.

Our children will be emulating us: spending their work life in cubicles in leased office buildings. They will be constantly on call. They will have little time for hobbies. Leisure time will need to be productive. If they made it through college, they will be going to graduate school. Lifelong education will be a necessity so they will be constantly earning new degrees. However, it is questionable whether so many of our ADD-addled youth of today will be able to master modern life at all.

It is a good bet they will not be hitting the health club after work. The forty-hour workweek will look increasing nostalgic. They will be lucky if they are working only fifty-hour workweeks. Most likely, they and their spouse will be juggling multiple jobs each to maintain some semblance of a decent standard of living. In addition, on top of their frantic lives they will be expected to raise another generation who will likely turn out even more dysfunctional. The road kill rates are likely to climb.

My wife is now teaching in a community college. I have been teaching in a community college for about five years. She runs across the same type of students that I do. She is surprised but what she sees but I am not. It is amazing and incredible, but most of her students arrive in college with no study skills at all. They whine for extra tutoring and study sessions. They do not know how to take effective notes. (Most do not even bother to take notes.) They pretty much refuse to read the textbook. They think homework is optional. If the lectures are not made available as printed Powerpoint slides they probably cannot absorb it. They need short bullets. These college pretenders cannot cope with college, just like they cannot cope with many other aspects of modern life. That is why so many of them are still living at home. That is why Mom and Dad are still paying for their room and board.

They seem comfortable in their cocoons. Modern life is too scary. They would rather stay in the nest. They would rather live with Mom and Dad forever. Despite all the preparation they allegedly received for real life, they arrive baffled and largely clueless. Life seems surreal. Money is abstract. It is hard to associate effort with value. It is hard to think. It is hard to understand cause and effect. They live in what they perceive to be a virtual and abstract world, not a real world.

I expect that our drug companies will try to come to the rescue. There will be a plethora of new drugs to help us cope. They will not solve their problems, but hopefully as a result they will feel better. Rest assured that they will enrich drug company profits. For if they survive then they will be needed in their stalls/cubicles. Lots of email will be constantly streaming in and out of their inbox that will need their attention. Perhaps their ability to multitask so successfully will make them a better cubicle dweller. For eight or ten hours a day, they will sit at their workstations hardly moving. However, the vending machine will be around the corner if they feel the need to graze. Because not only has Future Shock arrived, but Brave New World is also here. Pass the soma.

 
The Thinker

You Shouldn’t Do Should

Can we banish a world from our vocabulary? I would like to do so. I would like to get rid of the word should.

Okay, maybe I am being a bit hasty. There are after all a number of definitions for should. If you are calling home saying your flight should come in at 6 p.m. you are merely giving fair warning: it may not actually arrive on time. Given some of my recent travel experiences, 6 p.m. might be 3 p.m. the next day. However, I do not like the word when used to give self-imposed guilt trips. When used this way there are usually apron strings attached.

I have been noticing that in general women use should in this context a lot more than men. I am not sure why this is true. Nevertheless, I can speculate. Maybe it is because men are better at doing what they want. Or perhaps men are better at concealing their feelings. Whatever. But when you hear the word, you or the person uttering it is probably parroting their mother or father.

You should make your bed every day. You should brush your teeth after meals. You should exercise every day. You should take your vitamins in the morning. You should not eat too much fatty food. Should means you are expected to live up to someone else’s standard.

Why are you letting these people dictate your life? Let us try a more benign word instead. How about could? Could is should without the guilt trip. Yes, I could make my bed today. However, it will be just as clean and comfortable tonight if I do not want to make it. I could exercise today, but it is not necessary to do it every day. Therefore, I will watch TV instead. When you use could instead of should you are saying you are a grown up. You are affirming that you are fully capable of making decisions for yourself. When you say should you are being manipulated.

As an ex-Catholic I know all about should. When I grew up you sure knew from religious class that you should go to Mass every Sunday. At one time, it was a mortal sin to miss Mass without a priest’s okay. (I guess it was demoted to a venial sin.) I also knew I should never have sex before marriage. In school, I knew I should get all straight A’s. (I usually succeeded but I boy was I ashamed to bring anything less. I mean my face would turn beet red when I handed over my report card.) In fact, anything that gave me any real pleasure was something that was frowned upon. Apparently, I was born to be miserable.

I am sure I still live at least partially in the land of the “shoulds”. As a parent, I am busy making sure that my daughter also lives in the land of the shoulds. She should bring home all A’s too. But she rarely does, much to my consternation. She seems to be better at keeping the parental flypaper from sticking. My wife, bless her soul, is firmly entrenched in should-world. Some days it seems like every other word out of her mouth. “Oh, I should grade these student projects,” she will bemoan. Instead, she is playing computer games.

And that’s okay in my book. True I am not too enamored with people who make commitments to other people and don’t keep them. So were she to not plan for her next lesson I might even think her guilt trip was earned. I know that she will grade those projects at some time when it is more convenient for her. But usually when she uses the word should, it’s for a lot of silly stuff. She should do laundry on Tuesday. Instead, some weeks it is done on Wednesday or Thursday. Hey, it is okay as long as we do not run out of clean clothes. We should have dinner on the table by six o’clock. Some nights it is more like eight o’clock. Yes, I do prod her from time to time, but only because she insists on cooking and I am getting hungry. However, if it is an hour or two late on most nights I do not mind. Moreover, if she is busy doing something else that she really likes or is focused on it’s not the end of the world. I know how to cook for myself.

So should means more when it affects other people. Yes, if you are a parent you darn well should get your kids their shots when they need them. Actually, you must get them. Nevertheless, if it affects only you or no one really cares one way or the other, just turn off the guilt trip. You do not need it. If instead you are articulating these feelings to the rest of the family or significant others then we don’t need to hear it either. All we are hearing is the subtext: there is something wrong with me. I am flawed. I did not live up to my parent’s expectations. I am not living up to my expectations. Okay, we got it. Once was enough.

If it bugs you then get some therapy. I hope it helps. However, it may be a whole lot cheaper to put yourself on permanent holiday. Ask yourself: does this behavior affect anyone but me? If not, you have only yourself to answer for. If it does then decide whether it really matters or not. Is anyone you love or care for truly affected? Will they go sick, hungry or suffer emotional neglect? Or do they simply not care? If unsure, ask them. If they want you to have dinner on the table at six because they are used to it, does that matter? Or is the request simply an expectation? Is it perhaps a not too subtle way of controlling you? Again, if it does not matter then it is not worth all the thought. Go back to doing what you were enjoying.

Shall means there is a legal or ethical commitment. I shall feed and clothe my daughter. If I do not then I am likely to end up in prison. Will means that you honestly and sincerely intend to do something according to some specified conditions. You had given someone (maybe yourself) a commitment. Violating it doesn’t mean that you will be dragged away in chains, only that someone may be upset or think lesser of you.

However, should is simply a word you should not use. So repeat after me: I shall not use should. Instead I will use could. Repeat until the apron strings disappear and you become a liberated human being. Should just puts out a lot of unnecessary bad karma that will make you needlessly and pointlessly upset. You do not need it and no one who associates you needs it either. Pitch the word, pitch the attitude and move on.

 
The Thinker

The Vortex of Dying

Five weeks ago my 85-year-old mother could still get around. It was true that she often needed assistance. About half the time she could raise herself into her walker. Yes, she was a bit awkward shuffling forward or turning in her walker. But once started she could generally push herself forward. When she sat she was more likely to plop into her chair than brace her fall. But arguably she was mobile. She had some vestige of independence.

Five weeks ago she could also feed herself without much problem. Although her hands shook from time to time a drug made her tremors manageable.

Five weeks ago my mother lived in her own apartment. My father tended to her and was her constant, if sometime reluctant companion, day and night, catering to her many and seemingly endless needs. She slept in her own bed. Every evening she could count on a quality dinner at the dining room in their retirement community. She would enjoy that daily cup of coffee (now decaffeinated) served to her by waiters in uniforms. The coffee was poured into real china cups. She could count on enjoying a tasty entree fresh from the kitchens of the Riderwood dining facility. She especially liked the shrimp entrees.

Five weeks later finds my mother in a nursing home. The place is called Renaissance Gardens. It is a nursing home adjacent to the retirement community. She can no longer get herself into her walker. She cannot even lie down without assistance. Almost every act requires assistance. Her condition, PSP, means it is difficult for her to move her eyes. So she can only focus on what is straight ahead of her. She can still tilt and rotate her head slowly, but doing do brings fatigue after a while. So most of the time she listens and stares blankly at whatever happens to be in front of her.

Her days consist of meals, bed rest, occasional visits from occupational therapists and physicians, a visit or two from my father or a family member, and more bed rest. Her nights are long. She claims she doesn’t sleep, at least not very much. Days and nights blend together, as they have for many years now. She can read but only with concentration, and not for long. Her hands are not agile enough to hold a book. She has no interest in television and cannot concentrate on it.

And her condition is unlikely to improve. She may visit their apartment briefly from time to time. But it is unlikely that she will ever spend another night in her own bed. Instead she will be managed. Life is and will continue to be endlessly frustrating to her. Nothing can be done on her schedule anymore. She must wait. Wait for meals. Wait for someone to take her tray. Wait to be turned. Wait to be lifted into her wheelchair. Wait to be helped to and from the bathroom. More often than not she is changed like a baby. Underpants are useless. For the rest of her life she wears Depends.

She still hears very well, as long as her hearing aid batteries are fresh. She knows where she is. Even if she were mobile she cannot escape her ward. You see you have to know the number to type on the pad by the exit door and she doesn’t know it. Nor could her wobbly fingers press them accurately. She can recall most events clearly. Her hair may be gray but she has the skin of a woman twenty years younger. Her face may sag but there are few lines on her face.

Yet she keeps receding. She is clearly mentally ill. The extent of her illness is difficult for me to gauge, but it can be hard for those of us who love her to endure it. She is told one thing and remembers another. A 2 p.m. appointment becomes 1 p.m. in her mind. A fifteen-minute wait magnifies in her mind to an hour wait. As a result she is often bitter, resentful, and generally a complete killjoy. With luck, perseverance and enough conversation she can lapse into something like the mother I used to know. But increasingly the mother I knew throughout my life is gone. I ache for the moments when she acts familiar. But three quarters of the time or more she is not the mother I knew. The face is there but her personality has been magnified. The good parts have receded. Her unpleasant aspects have been grotesquely magnified. She acts more like a child than an adult.

To those of us who know and love her, she is in some sense already dead. Dead, yet alive, yet also inexorably sliding down a slippery slope. She is moving down a vortex from which life cannot escape. Hope is gone. She recognizes the reality of her condition but cannot fully grasp its dimensions. So she is understandably angry and depressed by her reality. She talks about her own death much more frequently now. She both resents her husband and admires him. She resents that he won’t spend every waking moment by her side engaged in conversation. She resents that he won’t lift her or put her down, even though he should not at 78. She resents that he cannot make things right for her, even though things are about as right as they can get under the circumstances. But she still admires the husband and father that he was, and wonders why on the dawn of their 55th wedding anniversary the husband she thought she knew and trusted is now more like Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll.

For my father is being pulled into her vortex too but so far is clinging firmly to its edge. He is doing the best he can for his wife, wishing he could do more but finding it impossible. He has limits that he must respect. He loves his wife but mourns these changes in her too. He feels confused, hurt and resentful when she lashes out at him in anger. He knows it is her mental illness that makes her do these things. But it makes most interactions with her painful. It makes him want to see her less, not more. Yet he plods forward in his marital role as best he can. Her bills get paid. He sorts through her many medical issues. My Dad is fraying a bit at the seams too. He must pull away. For the first time in his life he is seeing a therapist. We wonder how he survived so long without one.

And now he comes home to an empty and deathly quiet apartment. He makes his own meals, but not for two. But he now he has freedoms he didn’t have before, like being able to get out for regular walks. But always there is the psychic tug of his wife and her wants.

No one is at fault. Everyone is doing the best they can. And no one is happy about the situation. We wonder how long my mother will be living like this. How long before death finally overtakes her? Days? Months? Weeks? Years? Most patients with her condition live one to two years after they are committed to the nursing home. There is no way to know for sure. But considering the extent of her deterioration in just the last five weeks I suspect it will be sooner rather than later.

We recognize that we are not super humans either. My siblings and I still have our own families and commitments. We love her as much as we always have. But we cannot be there all the time. She has to cope with this unhappy phase of her life as best she can. Yet she does not seem to be in pain most of the time. Her basic needs are seen to. Her other needs are difficult if not impossible to meet.

So we grieve too. Seeing a parent decline is like watching a fatal car wreck in slow motion and in exquisite detail, except we cannot turn away from it. We feel the emotional impact of her decline. We wish we could wave a magic wand and make things better. Like my father we cannot really turn off our feelings.

In the process we wonder if we see in our mother what we too will go through in time. Despite her high quality of care it still looks like a nightmare. I find myself hoping for a sudden and quick death when my time comes. Is what my mother going through really life? Is this the “culture of life” that we claim to so highly value? Or is it just existence? Whatever it is, it seems like a horror.

So we too stand on the edge of her vortex looking down too, confident that for now we will not be sucked into it but knowing our time will come too. We look because a lifelong commitment of love between parent and child means we cannot turn away now. For myself, I move through the rest of my life seemingly normal on the surface but a changed, humbled, frustrated and sometimes scared person. I hope when my time comes I will be more graceful in my decline. I want a death like King Theoden’s on Pelennor Fields. But I suspect mine will resemble my mother’s. I’d like not to think about it but I cannot. The pain is too close, too tangible and too persistent.

My mother will not survive this but we will. Death is a natural consequence of life. The feelings we go through when we are dying are natural too. I know I won’t enjoy this time of her life. But I will survive it. Perhaps when these horrid years are behind me I will live fully again, humbled but grateful for each day of good health. I hope so.

I wish I lived in a culture that had a better attitude toward dying. I wish my mother were a devout Buddhist instead of a Catholic wondering if she’ll die with a mortal sin on her soul. I wish she could embrace the changing experience called dying. But for the moment she is not in that space. Perhaps before the end she will embrace it. And perhaps someday I will too.

 

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