Monday, May 24, 2010

Coolclan Public Service Announcement

From time to time, I link to stories from the Coolclan blog. Coolclan is changing their privacy settings, but will happily welcome my readers. If you want to be added as a "reader"at the Coolclan blog send your email addy to coolclanblog (at)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ready for something big?

This afternoon, Paul and I (with several others) spoke on a panel about why we need an independent clubhouse in Rhode Island, and how we hope to open Harbor House in Providence by October 2010. Paul and I are experts on clubhouses because he was a member of a clubhouse called Threshold when we lived in North Carolina. It was my job to tell a bit about what Threshold was like and how it made both Paul's life (as a person living with a severe mental illness) and my life (as his family member) better.

I asked people to focus on three words: member, community, and work. I said a bit more than this, but basically I said that Threshold was the only time I can remember in Paul's adult life where he had a community around him who was invested in him for his own sake. (As opposed to my wonderful friends who are friends with him largely for my sake, and as opposed to mental health professionals who service his needs, but have no real investment in him.) I also talked about how the community only functioned when the members worked to make it function, but that meant that Paul (like every member) was expected to work and to contribute. This is very different from how he is treated anywhere else in his life. Here he is a member, not a patient or a client or a resident. He belongs and contributes.

We had planned it so that Paul's part would be more question-and-answer than monologue. Ralph, the executive director of Harbor House, asked Paul some great specific questions about his experiences at Threshold. And Paul answered. You have to understand how often I have tried to pry words out of Paul and was lucky to get "Fine" or a yes or no. Paul answered well. He told about the work units he was a part of and how much he enjoyed the fellowship at Threshold. At the end of Paul's part of the panel, Ralph asked him why he wants to be part of a clubhouse again. He said, "I think it will help with my recovery." I was hoping he would say a little more, so I leaned over and said, "Can you say how it will help?" He sort of mentioned fellowship again and I was sort of afraid he had hit the end and just had no words left, and then all of a sudden, he just whipped out something like, "Clubhouses make it possible for people to live well with mental illness. We need them."

I was so proud. I really don't think I've ever heard Paul say so much, and to speak in public like that ... I was really surprised and delighted that he did so well. I took him out to dinner afterwards and we talked a bit about all this. He was very pleased with himself as well, which was great. We decided that he really is doing much better than he's done in a long time, perhaps since the onset of his illness. At a certain point he said to me, "I think I'm ready for something big." He didn't really have a sense of what that would be, but it suddenly feels like it might be just around the bend.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mother's Day Reflections

Mother's Day can be a hard day for a woman who has already lost her own mother (far too young) and who has no children of her own. It's often particularly hard for me, because of how it gets treated in church. Despite the practice of many churches, Mother's Day is not actually a liturgical feast day, but like Memorial Day and Fourth of July, it often takes over the liturgy on its particular Sunday.

I conveniently enough (for completely other reasons) arranged to attend the Saturday vigil last night and managed to avoid the worst of it. I came across this the other day, though (hat tip: RM). Though it doesn't quite say how I feel about Mother's Day, it says a lot of things that resonate with me about being childless on Mother's Day.

However, I also came across this (hat tip: HTC), the story of a woman who gave her son up for adoption. I was very grateful to be reading it this morning. It, along with the other, reminded me that I am not the only woman in the world with a complex relationship with this day.

One other thing about mothers today. I was reading, as I often do, some posts in one of my Facebook groups (Bring Change 2 Mind) that tends to focus on mental illness issues. As you might imagine, in such a group, many people have complex relationships with their own mothers. I found myself very grateful for my own mom and the fact that the only pain I have in our relationship is that it was too short.

And, for better or worse, I will think no more about Mother's Day today, but only grading papers.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

A good semester

Pretty early this semester, I knew something was a little different in my classes. I still don't know what the cause was, though I have three theories.

But proof before theories. Well, I can't really prove it, but here's what convinced me in the last few days. I was giving oral exams, which is mostly very fun, because most of the students have really prepared well and they really know their stuff, which is great to see "live," as opposed to reading it later in a blue book. But I had more students than I can count shake my hand and say to me, with convincing sincerity and enthusiasm, that they really enjoyed the class, quite an achievement for a core requirement.

But there were 3 moments that just bowled me over, in some very different ways. First, a student (and not one who seemed to be particularly connected to me nor particularly affectionate) thanked me for the class and I reached out to shake his hand. He looked at me as though offended, said "Come on!" Then he pulled me into a hug. It was so unexpected. And it hit me that the course hit him in a more-than-intellectual way.

Second, one of my students told me, as several of them had, that she enjoyed my class much more than she thought she would, since it was just a core requirement. I thanked her, nodded and said that she wasn't the first to say that. I didn't mean that to sound dismissive, but apparently it did. She launched into something of a defense. She explained that she had sort of come to think that core requirements (like philosophy and theology) were old and irrelevant, and her major field (economics) is contemporary and relevant. She said that my course (Catholic social thought) helped her think about everything differently and helped her see how everything was connected. Wow.

Third, another student finished the exam and asked for a minute to tell me something. She told me that she hadn't really been to church since she was confirmed several years ago. She told me that she thought of the church as out of touch, as making pronouncements but not really concerned about anything real and significant. She told me that my class showed her a different face of the church and made it possible for her to begin to go back. Double wow.

Certainly some of my students have reacted a bit like this before, but I really have not heard so much directly from them before. Still curious about my theories about what was different? Well, one is that the clickers I used (a student-response system) helped all the students to get more invested in the class and in one another sooner. Second, I had a group of students that already knew each other, and perhaps they helped everyone else to connect a bit more than usual. Third is simply that I am more known on campus than I was a couple of years ago. More students come into my class having seen me give a lecture on campus or having had a friend or a roommate who already had my class. Maybe all of these are factors; maybe none are.

Like many people who teach, early in my career, I used to say, "If I can make a difference in the life of one student, it's worth it." It didn't take me too long to learn that I actually need a bit more than that. To have 50 or more students in a semester and to only make a difference in the life of one can be pretty frustrating. But this semester, this semester has been a good one.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo to all!

In my life, Cinco de Mayo is always definitively my brother Paul's birthday. We celebrated a bit last night and will do so again this weekend. And, thanks to a friend of ours, Paul is promised a day of surfing when the weather gets warmer, so the celebration will continue in a month or two.

I've been thinking a lot about Paul lately and what he means to me. His birthday gives a particular occasion to reflect upon the years going by, and the wonderful gift that time together brings. I was reminded of a post that I wrote last October, especially this part.
The reality of the thing is that I--like most family members of people with a severe persistent mental illness--often feel very isolated. People sort of share the burden and sort of understand; people try. But it is impossible to convey, even to those who know me well, what it means to remember my brother not simply as this semi-stable though unpredictable and socially awkward man, but also as the sweet baby, slightly devilish boy, troubled teen, and truly psychotic young adult. To carry that whole history with him in a way that no one else does (not even our brothers who mostly haven't seen him in years) is a gift and a burden.
If I had to judge Paul only on some of those most psychotic moments--well, it would be hard to be in any sort of relationship with him. But, through the gift--unexpected, unsought, but given--of having years of closeness with Paul, everything balances out. Don't imagine some sort of perfect balance as you read that. But, somehow, having seen the psychosis, the sadness, the mania, the various forms of cognitive dysfunction, I know this is an illness. And that is a gift. Knowing that gets me through the times (so few of late, thank God) when Paul's behavior would be nearly unforgivable without that knowledge. (It is odd, because in a way this means that the very worst times are what get you through the moderately bad times.)

As I said in October, that gift is also a burden. At dinner last night, Paul and I had a couple of moments where we were sharing stories from the past. It was so clear to me how often he had completely forgotten pretty crucial stories. I realized that part of my responsibility is to remember the story and to tell it, including to Paul.

Monday, May 03, 2010

May is Mental Health Month

May, though it apparently has some other identities as well, has been designated Mental Health Month. Of course, in my life, most months are mental health months. I seldom need an excuse to turn this blog to the topic of mental illness, but I will try to make particular efforts to hit some key stories.

I'll try harder after I get my grades in.

But for now, just this. Although the mental health issues in my family are on the severe side of things, I am reminded again and again of just how prevalent these issues are. In my 3 classes, I had fewer than 50 students this semester, and 3 of them mentioned to me that they are now struggling or have in the past struggled with a major mental mental illness. That's just the 3 who found their way to my office and for whatever reason trusted me enough to say something. I heard a bit more about roommates and friends.

So many of us are struggling with mental illness issues. I wonder what it would take to end the stigma. I really believe that there is so much healing in sharing our stories.