Decision Tree

This is a pretty simple concept. When I was in fifth grade all of the kids in the neighborhood decided we were going to steal alcohol and cigarettes from our parents and throw a little party. Needless to say, my best friend and I were the youngest, 9 and 10, while the other kids were almost in high school. Because they were much older, the told us we should bring the beer and cigarettes. If I remember correctly, I volunteered to bring the cigarettes and my friend stated that he would bring the beer.

Later that night, we met in the middle of the cul de sac, our loot in tow. We ventured out to the woods and began to have our party. I think we might have lit one cigarette and shared a fourth of one beer before a parent found us and the party was busted.

Being the my parents had recently divorced, but continued to always parent on the same page, my mother called my father. Later that night he showed up. I don’t remember much about what happened that night but I do remember sitting on the steps in our entry way talking to my parents. Although I cried the entire time, my parents were not harsh or bitter, only asking me to be as honest as possible about the activities of the evening and who decided what was to be brought to the party.

I didn’t know it at the time, but every other kid involved lied and placed the blame of the evening on me. Apparently I was the one who came up with the idea. I was the one who volunteered to bring the beer and the cigarettes and I was the only one who drank or smoked. Funny…I didn’t remember it that way?

My parents asked me only once, “Are you sure that’s the truth?”, and I answered yes. “If you say it’s the truth, then I believe it’s the truth.” My father said. “We raised you to be honest and I believe we did our job.” There was some discussion about what I thought my punishment should be and then I was dismissed while my parents sat on the front porch and talked about the incident…while drinking a beer.

For the rest of that summer, all of the kids in the neighborhood were unable to play with me because their parents had termed me a “bad influence”. They would ride up and down the street and shout “smoker, smoker” and “drinker, drinker” at me, knowing they had been part of the party as well.

I was 10. During that same summer, my friend and I had been caught by his father dressed in drag in the front yard of my house. My mother took a picture of us, every bit the Kennedy clan in wide brimmed hats, smoking tree twigs as cigarettes. His father had been furious. My mother laughed as our neighbor hauled my friend away while tripping on his long gown.

When I was in high school I got in trouble for another drinking party. While talking to my father over dinner he brought up the incident from the summer of my tenth year. “You know, I was always very proud of you for that night.” He said. “The other kids were rewarded by their parents for lying because those parents couldn’t deal with the fact that their children could possibly engage in such behaviors. They received new hockey equipment and shoes while you were punished for your involvement. Their lies will haunt them.” He told me.

“In life, there is a decision tree. The tree grows into a trunk which supports the rest of the tree. This is the foundation of your morals and values given to you when you are young as well as any of your genetic makeup. Next, we have the branches. Each branch splits in two eventually. Each branch represents choices you make in your life. Each choice leads to two or more choices and so forth. As you grow, your decision tree grows and all of your choices compound on top of one another. I wish I could show you my decision tree, and explain all of the good and poor choices I made in my life so that you could live your life to the fullest based on my experience. Unfortunately, you have to grow your own branches. Your mother and I always understood that which is why that evening, whether you had been telling the truth or not, we knew your choice would ultimately affect mostly your life. One lie would lead to another lie and to another lie. As life moves forwards, those kids who lied that not will display similar behaviors but you will be a finer human being for telling the truth and moving through difficult choices.”

And then he patted my back and the lesson was over.

I won’t bore you by telling you I became one of the most prolific liars this century has ever seen or that I had countless arrests and addiction treatments. I won’t bore you with how I treated people horribly, felt that I was owed something from my family and blamed other people for all of my mistakes. I won’t bore you with the countless drugs I did or how much alcohol and cigarettes I used over the years. I definitely won’t bore you with details about how I didn’t care about others’ feelings for years and only, selfishly, thought about my wants and needs.

But I will tell you that because of those years, I do not behavior in any way like that today. In fact, I attempt to live such a right life by the standards I set for myself that I am completely offended when others challenge these values. About a year ago, a business associate accused Alex and I of lying about how we had witnessed an event and reported it. I won’t dredge up the past because, as I stated, I’ve learned from those behaviors and don’t react the same way today, therefore we are friends again and both apologized for hurting each others’ feelings.

Needless to say, in being called a liar I explained that I was completely offended because that challenged the foundation of my sobriety and my values. If I am a liar, then the rest of it is a scam true; my recovery, my relationships…all of it. I might be a lot of things. But I am not a liar. Those behaviors of yesteryear were my picking the wrong branches to climb. Today, I choose different branches because I’ve learned…and my dad was right. In looking at his choices and the choices of others, and learning from one another, I’ve been allowed to live a better life.

While dissecting your life, ask yourself, Am I happy? Are there things I want to change? Are there things I believe are out of my control? What would I change today that would make me happier?

Now look at your choices!

You have many choices. The fact is not that you don’t have choices. The fact is that you don’t like where your choices lead. Many of us don’t like our choices, but sometimes choices we didn’t want to take led us in the right direction. I had no intention of staying in treatment on December 17, 1994 but by going I’ve been allowed to have the most amazing life possible. While working in treatment, I was adamant I was not going to participate in a new family group therapy program that had been designed, but after making the choice to participate rather than be fired, I learned I loved working with families. I was also forced to do an internship in an inner city elementary school. I begged and pleaded with my dean to let me do another internship, but due to my lack of planning, it was all that was left. During that internship, I met my mentor and had some of the best life change experiences ever!

It is easier to let go than to resist.

That branch was my most important.

My parents were very wise. They knew how to raise me with enough liberty to become the person I was meant to become while guided enough to have the values and morals they had learned would further me the most in this life. They were wise because they never allowed me to see them argue, with the exception of a few occasions, and they never spoke poorly of each other. They never made parenting decision without consulting one another. They did this because they loved me. They were the best parents any kid could wish for in life.

My mother was very, very wise. She never threw anything away in fear of possibly needing it again someday. Downstairs in our basement, right on top of her old Smith-Corona typewriter, sits a gorgeous photograph of the Kennedy sisters, both draped in beautiful dresses, wide-brimmed floppy hats shading their faces as they drink lemonade and smoke cigarette tree branch twigs.

I might post that picture someday…hell, we’re on borrowed time as it is!


The New Rules…Rules #1, #2 and #3


Several years ago, there was a book titled, “If Life Were a Game, These are the Rules”, by Cherie Carter-Scott. I have used this book with my clients in therapy ever since I laid my hands on it. While I believe in the small rules she has applied, I think Dr. Carter-Scott, self proclaimed “original coach-trainer”, needs to update these rules just a bit.

Lately, I have been swamped with clients who feel stuck and are feeling completely unable to move forward in their lives. Since I’m a therapist who uses a lot of my own life experience, I have shared many of my stories, but they continue to feel stuck. Tonight, one of my clients contacted me and stated that she believed that no amount of therapy will allow her to change and she feels as if she will be stuck forever. At first this made me a little sad, but quickly I realized, she doesn’t know the rules. And then I began thinking about Dr. Carter-Scott’s rules and realized, they just wouldn’t work with this client. In fact, they wouldn’t work with a lot of my clients. And what I realized was that I must go back to where I started in my own self discovery and identify the rules, as they were, and explain them in my own words.

First things first, let’s use the word rules to define our…hmmmm…how about Voyage! Yes, yes…rules to a successful Voyage!

Part one of any journey is Preparation. So Rules 1, 2 and 3 center around preparation.
Rule #1…Identify your destination. Most people wouldn’t pack a bag, save money and get ready for a trip without having a destination in mind. Sure, the idea of just getting into our cars and taking off is appealing, but isn’t that really just running away? And I don’t think the solution to our life problems is running away. So first, we must come up with a destination. What do we want our lives to look like? Be creative. Be original. Dream big! You only have one life, this is it! Write it down, use descriptive words. Draw pictures, diagrams. And maybe, just maybe, you need to be a little bit realistic. Sometimes, that is where therapy is helpful. In the movie, “The Miss Firecracker Contest”, it is a sad moment when Alfre Woodard realizes that the Elysian Fields where people can eat all of the ambrosia they want does not really exist, but is fictional. So, she decides she must go elsewhere. But in reality, what is she REALLY after? A place of peace, harmony and love. Maybe your dream is to be a movie star, to be rid of your addictions or to have a boyfriend. No matter what your destination, be specific. Who do you want to be? Define your life vision!

Rule #2…Start packing. For this voyage you are about to embark upon, what will you need? If you were going to Siberia, would you need warm sweaters or shorts and sandals. Will you need a passport to get you into certain ports. Will you need cash, credit cards, what things will help you with your journey? Just the same as any other trip, you must be prepared to open yourself to anything that will come along the way. That means opening yourself up to the voyage that is about to begin. By identifying the points in your past that might be pertinent to your future goals, but also, keeping your eye on your destination. Make a list of all of the things that might be obstacles along the way, and also those supportive devices that might help you be successful on your voyage. Who could you call in times when you need assistance? Any emergency numbers in case you get a flat tire? Make sure you are truly prepared to leave.

And then…it is time.

Rule #3…Open the Door to your Future…Take off on your VOYAGE! It’s time to go, but like on any trip, once you walk out of the door and board that plane, boat or car for a road trip, you don’t turn around and change your mind, you just…keep…going! You must trust the process of your voyage! I have worked with so many clients who come two or three times to therapy, not trusting the process, constantly questioning their journey. How much more they would have received had they been open to the process instead of constantly questioning the voyage. How many people truly enjoy a trip to Mexico if the entire time they are sitting on the beach they are questioning if they can really afford it or what they should be doing at home. If that is the case, pack your bags, return home and live that life. You only have one life to live and if that’s what you want then you should be focused on daily rituals instead of making changes. Which is where I will talk about two subtle rules to the rules…

Crown Rules!!!! IN ALL THINGS THERE MUST BE GRATITUDE AND SIMPLICITY!!!! Without these two crown rules, the Voyage will be pointless and you will lose sight of your destination.

Your destination IS reachable! You must believe this. Above everyone else, YOU must believe this. It doesn’t matter who else believes you or what they say or don’t say, YOU must believe you can have everything you deserve! If you don’t believe this…the voyage is pointless. Sit at home, watch family videos of other people’s travels and wish you could pack that bag. And maybe someday, you will.

This summer I was at the State Fair with Alex and our two friends. We witnessed a mother cow being extremely protective of her five-hour old calf. Even though she stood in front of him the entire time, he continued to fight to get around her to look at us and see what the world had to offer him. We all start off that innocent and wide-eyed, but somewhere along the way, we lose sight of what we can achieve and we allow our dreams to fade into the mist. I used to tell my adolescent clients that the only difference between me and Tom Cruise, besides the obvious, was that he showed up for the audition! We must have this attitude to move forward. My life was once clogged full of alcohol, drugs, chaos and desperation. I chose to move on. I picked a different destination and prepared for a successful voyage.

Tonight, my friend Lis celebrated six years of sobriety. For a 23 year old young lady, that is an amazing feat! We lost our mother’s
within two years of each other. Constantly when one of us gets down, the other one reminds us that our mother’s do not have the luxury anymore to bitch and complain about their lives and that, as my mother used to say, you can sleep when you’re dead. The time is now! Pick your destination! Be as wide-eyed as that young calf and see the world as full of possibilities as a field of clover!

Because, we’re on borrowed time as it is!

Teal Street Memories…

The day my mother died, I remember wanting to call only one person. Krissa. I’m not sure why or what I thought I might tell her, being that it had been so long since I had spoken to her, but some part of my being needed to reach out to the one person who truly understood my soul. I remembered three years before, when my mother’s best friend Diane died from cancer, my mother looked at me across her living room, tears pouring from her eyes, and said, “there’s no one left that understands me anymore.” And that is how I’ve always felt about Krissa.

Krissa and I met when I was 20, out at a bar in downtown Indianapolis. Because she got into a fight with her friend that brought her to the bar, she came home with me and spent the night. We stayed up late, drinking and listening to music and were instant best friends. Soul siblings! (For years we would tell people that we were brother and sister and we were related to John Gotti.) The next day, I took her to her car, an old white supra that barely started and she drove off to work, swearing to call me at the end of her work day.

The end of her work day ended almost an hour later, when the family she was a nanny, fired her, telling her it didn’t appear her heart was in the job anymore. And so began our journey together. For the next year, Krissa and I lived in a one bedroom apartment, sharing a bed, sharing our jokes, our tears, our stories, our lives…best friends bound by our souls. Even after I became involved with my first real boyfriend, the three of us moved into a two bedroom apartment on Teal Street and even though I was in a relationship, it was Krissa and I who would go to the library, stay up late and watch movies and run to the gas station for chips and salsa and orange slice candy…”you have to have something salty with something sweet.” She would say, and thus defined our friendship.

Krissa and I partied together, and she was there when I got sober. To this day, she is the only one who I know of who stood up to my father, yet he slammed the phone down on her when she demanded that he bring me cigarettes to treatment. Awww…well, she meant well. And she stayed loyal to my sobriety and always respected it as well…

She was and will always be…my dearest friend, even though not many people understood our friendship. And that doesn’t really matter, because it’s ours and no one else needs to understand it. But today, on a day when I’ve been listening to old music and thinking a lot about the past, I received an email from her out of the blue. “tell me the name of the weird vampire chick we used to know way back when-the one who called 911 on us at Scandia.(oh God, memories)” And that’s what we have, wonderful memories and maybe some not so wonderful ones too…but she will be forever, tightened around my heart, even though miles and oceans separate us now.

Last summer, an old friend of mine and I were talking about Krissa and he asked where she was and I said I thought she was in Berlin but I hadn’t talked to her in awhile. We started laughing about some of the trouble the two of us had gotten into and what a good friend she had been to me. We talked about how she had made decisions on her own and hadn’t allowed society, her family or her friends dictate what was or wasn’t important to her. “She lived a life. She definitely has lived a life.” He said, a we both laughed, thinking of what a wonderfully, kindred spirit she is. And I think, I’m just so much luckier for having had her in my life.

And hearing from her today has made me want to reach back into my back pocket a little bit and remember some of the people who have been so vital to my own growth. My dear friend Clara, for whom I wouldn’t be sober today if it hadn’t been for her. My friend Peggy who told me, when I was in the heat of my addiction, that the only way she could help me and be my friend, was by not being my friend. (This, important piece of wisdom I have shared with hundreds upon hundreds of people in treatment, therapy and recovery through the years. It is, by far, the number one thing that changed my outlook on my addiction, even is she doesn’t know it.) My adopted aunts, Vicki and Susie who gave me wondrous childhoods filled with politics, Pi Phi stories and pieces of Mockingbird summers. And to my cousin Caroline and my Aunt Kathy, who, well…have been my only family. A family so rich, that when I looked at my aunt, wearing her sunglasses as she walked behind my mother’s coffin into the church, took my hand and said, “come on, it’s time.” And they have all been there for me, and all share small hallways in the hotel of my heart.

And maybe, just maybe, all of us, should make such a list, although I’m sure I’m leaving many out…and remember, that it’s really the people, who save our souls and walk the walk, side by side…each step of the way…and really, really remember…because…

We’re on borrowed time as it is!

Kitchen Magnets…

Matthew Shepard head shot
I have a magnet on my refrigerator that was left behind by my mother. It is the only one of her magnets that I haven’t taken down. It simply states, “I support the Matthew Shepard Foundation.” It took a long time to get up there and hopefully, it will never come down.
I came out to my parents when I was 18, in 1990. At that time, gay men and lesbians were still hiding, they weren’t seen on television and in movies and they definitely weren’t made judges, like Ellen Degeneres, on American Idol. If we were seen in movies, we were cast as AIDS patients or effeminate guys prancing around. While those stereotypes might have been true of some, they weren’t true of everyone. My dad and stepmother were easy to come out to, being that my father is a surgeon, a man of medicine, who believed that sexual orientation was decided at birth. I thought my mother would be just as easy to comfort, but that wasn’t the case.
Some background on my mother is important. She was extremely liberal, always voted Democrat, and believed in the underdog. She lived in Chicago during the late sixties and worked at Northwestern Library and as a teacher at an orthodox Hebrew school. At that school, she was the only gentile employee and most of her students were first generation immigrants to the United States, whose parents still had concentration camp numbers imprinted on their arms. My mother and my aunt both went to inner city schools and graduated from Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis. My mother would tell stories about spending her summers at the Rivera Country Club and remembered different bathrooms and water fountains for “white” and “colored” people. She would become extremely outraged by any mistreatment of humanity, yet she struggled with my being gay. “I’m just really worried about you Peter.” She said. “Don’t worry mom, I’m not stupid, I’ll be safe.” I replied, meaning practicing safer sex practices. To this day, I remember her sitting back in her chair, smirking, as if I could not grasp her simple meaning. “I’m not worried about you getting sick.” She said, “I’m worried about how society will treat you.” And there began our journey together.
For several years afterward, she would introduce my boyfriends as “friends” to people she knew, and even to some of her closest, “Christian” friends, she struggled when they asked her if I had a girlfriend or why I wasn’t married. Until, October 7th, 1998. I remember sitting at home that night and my mom calling me. “Are you watching this on the news?” she said. Of course I wasn’t. I rarely watched the news, unlike she and my father, who had always been news junkies and were always up to the minute on world events. “No, what’s going on mom.” She began sobbing on the other end of the phone. “There’s this boy from the University of Wyoming who was beaten and left for dead out in the middle of nowhere because he was gay. It’s just so horrible.” She was inconsolable. Finally after several minutes, she got off of the phone and told me she would call me the next day. Which she did, before my alarm even went off. “Ok, I’ve been on the phone with the hospital all night trying to contact his mother.” I had no idea what she was talking about, as my mind had drifted away from any misery in the night. “What the hell are you talking about?” I said. “Matthew Shepard.” She replied, “That boy from Wyoming. He’s at the hospital in Colorado and they’re not sure he will make it. I’ve been trying to contact his mother to let her know how bad I feel for her and how I relate, but they won’t put me through.” The hilarious point, if there is any, of this statement is that my mother always felt entitled to be part of any event. If there was a car accident, she would pull over and ask the police if they needed help. If a national official was in trouble, she would attempt to write a letter or educate others. Yet at times, she didn’t know when to pull back.
Five days later, Matthew Shepard died. My mother was silent for almost two days and then asked me to come over to her condo because she needed to talk to me. When I got to her house, she had made a pot of coffee and we sat down in the living room. “What is it?” I asked, not sure what the seriousness of the occasion would entail. “I want to know.” She said. “I want to know what it’s been like for you. Matthew Shepard died from hate and I want to know what it’s been like for you through the years because honestly, I wouldn’t even know you were gay if you hadn’t told me.”(and to this, I still give a little chuckle.)But I told her anyway…
I told her how in elementary school and junior high, kids would make fun of me for my lack of athletic ability. They would also point to the “homogenized milk” cartons at lunch, and laugh at me, saying I was like the milk. They would lisp, they would push, they would attack. And it didn’t get any better in high school. Every day, I dreaded going to school because I was afraid of what someone would write on my locker, spray on my car, or say as I walked through the hallways. I would constantly be called a faggot, pushed into lockers and made fun of by the kids around me. And worse still, even my friends wouldn’t stand up for me. When graduation closed in on me, I was afraid to walk across the stage because of my fear that someone might call me names as I walked across the stage and my parents would be privy to the private pain I wore every day.
A strange side note to this story is that I had one such nemesis in high school named Matt. Although he wasn’t aware of this, for years after high school, the things that he and his friends said and did to me lingered, making me shy in social situations and ashamed of being gay. Finally, my determination to challenge ignorance such as theirs helped me to become the strong, proud person I am today, capable of having healthy relationships and friendships. The strange part is that he befriended me on Facebook less than a year ago. He is now aware of how I felt in high school, has taken responsibility and I now consider him a friend. We all grow up. We all deserve a second chance. Even me. But high school was hell. And I have to believe in some way it contributed to my extreme substance abuse because as long as I was wasted, I didn’t really care what people said to or about me. But my mother did.
And she couldn’t contain her hurt that day we had our talk. She wanted to personally call the parents of every “child” that had been mean to me and make them aware of how their children had treated me. But I was almost thirty at that point, and life had moved on, and there wasn’t really any point anyway. But for her, things changed. She no longer called my boyfriends “friends”. In fact, my ex-boyfriend Shawn became a permanent part of our family and was probably one of the people closest to her in her life. She was not ashamed or protective of me anymore, and felt that it should be the other persons shame or burden to carry if they couldn’t handle the fact that her son was gay. When she died, I received a letter from the Matthew Shepard Foundation regarding my mother and found countless letters she had written Judy Shepard, Matthews mother, rough drafted in her many notebooks about how society was a cruel frontier and how mothers were the captains of their children’s ships. One of our closest friends, MaryAnn, contributed to this foundation, because she knew how much my mother cared about it’s cause and how her endearing love for me was also in her love for me as her gay son. And then the fight continued…or so I thought.
Because I met Alex. And he changed my perspective on everything. He wasn’t quite as out with his family as I had been, being that he is much younger and that culturally and religiously his mother is not necessarily at the same point my mother was by the time she was fifty. But I believe that will come with time. Because love endures and love translates what we do not understand, but feels it’s intensity nonetheless. And I love his mother because she has amazing energy and has allowed me to become part of their family. And Alex has challenged me on words like “fag” and “faggot”. He believes that these “words” only carry as much weight as we give them. And on a few occasions when someone has called him one of these names, he responds with something like, “thank you for noticing.” And maybe that’s the way to go about it. Because this Saturday, we’ll be heading to our engagement party that his coworkers are throwing us. And tonight we took his teenage brother to see a movie. And yesterday we went grocery shopping and took our new pups all over town. Because we’re just like everyone else and we don’t need to be separate. It’s important to bring the awareness to the gay community, but maybe it’s more important for us to lessen the tension, just a little bit. Why take ourselves so damn seriously.
But it does remind me of how we treat each other. And how words have lasting impressions like a burn from a curling iron on your forehead. Or how love is not pain, but endurance, compassion and understanding. Love does not hurt. And everyone deserves the chance to grow up. Everyone. But Matthew Shepard wasn’t given that chance. So for that reason, I think today I’ll forgive everyone that gave me a hard time in high school, and especially Matt, because he’s pretty cool these days and if we ever got together I think enough time has gone by that we might be able to be pretty good friends. But most importantly, because people are dying everyday, and quite frankly, it’s easier to love than to hate. And the saddest part of this story to me, is that my mother never got to meet Alex. And he was never able to meet her. And we just don’t know when are chances run will run out…because, we’re on borrowed time as it is…

A Suicide Note…

Dear Suicide…I have a dear, dear friend, maybe a better friend than you can ask for at times, that was greatly affected by you, and didn’t even ask for you to be in her life. I have a dear friend, whose mother was taken by you, without questions answered, without any sign of your coming, without any ability to meet you at the door and escort you far, far away. My dear friend, Lis Crosby, is only 23, and because of you, she will never see her mother’s hair all turn white. She will never be able to hand over one of her children to it’s grandmother. She doesn’t understand you and neither do I. Why would you do such a thing. Because of you, there is so much that her mother will miss out on in Lis’ life and the life of her brother Jonathan. But why am I telling you this. You already know this by now as you take an adult life almost every 16 minutes in the United States and attempt to take one every minute. You are tricky and deceiving because you offer solutions with no reasonable answers. You are real. You are scary. And you are lurking in every corner. Not only have I lost my dear friend Lis’ mother, Nancy, but also several friends, and parents of friends. Not long ago, you met the father of a friend of mine. You hide in the minds of our children, our elderly and those in between. I am thankful I have never wanted to taste of your breath, but I can’t say so much for many, many people I have met. The only solution to getting rid of you is through education, and awareness and talking, comforting and compassion. So watch out. Because…we’re on a mission.
Nancy Crosby was born on December 7, 1963. She died on September 30th, 2006. I remember that day almost too well. I had just left work and got a call from my friend Tonya. “Uh honey.” I could tell she was crying on the other end of the phone. “They just found Lis’ mom.” And from there on, everything is a blur. I remember pulling up to her Granny’s house and seeing all of the cars, all of the people in AA surrounding Lis, only twenty at the time, and already, several years sober, comforting her as she and her brother screamed up into the trees. Why? Why? I had never experienced so much pain, angst and anger all mixed into one strange concoction. After talking to Lis, or talking at her in her fog and haze of confusion, Tonya and I went to her mother’s house to get Nancy’s dog Serenity. When we walked into the house, I was somewhat eerie, being that Nancy had only been found hours before, but somehow, the house was comforting. I didn’t experience any fear as I walked through the house and we got Serenity and put her in the car. Through those next several days, I saw a young girl shattered by the loss of her mom.
A year and a half later, Lis got to do the same for me. She was by my side the entire time my mother was sick, and eventually died from a rare disease. We laughed together, we cried together. And a 21 year old, LADY, walked me through how to deal with a funeral. Our mothers are even buried only five feet from each other. And we find comfort in that. What we don’t find comfort in is how both of their deaths could have been prevented. In the case of my mother, she had a rare disease that went undiagnosed for far too long, and probably could have prevented her death. And for Nancy? Well, much the same can be said for her disease. Because suicide and depression are diseases in this country that go far to unnoticed and dealt with appropriately.
This Saturday will mark the 2nd anniversary of Team Nancy marching in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk for suicide prevention. All money raised will go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Lis and her brother Jonathan will both be marching again, as will many people in more than 200 communities across the United States. I know many people read my blog who care alot about mental health and addiction issues. Please donate to help their cause as it is vital that more attention is brought to depression and suicide so it can be brought out of the darkness and into the light. On the main page of my blog, I have linked The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Team Nancy for donations and more information about the walk in Indianapolis this Saturday, September 12th, 2009, and Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender issues related to suicide.
The information is astonishing. And as I walk past my mother’s grave and visit Nancy, telling her every time, that I’m watching over Lis and taking care of her the best I can, I know somewhere she’s watching. But I have to believe that things got just too painful for her. Life became too overwhelming and somehow she ran out of options. But I don’t believe she would trade it all in if she had known other options. She was one damn fighter, we just didn’t know how to help her into the ring.
I remember when my mother got sick and we didn’t know what disease her symptoms were indicating, I asked her why she wasn’t fighting harder. “If I knew what I was fighting, I could fight.” And much can be said for depression and suicide as well. So reach out, learn and contribute. In these trying times, we should cherish the ones around us more and hug often and remember…we’re on borrowed time as it is!

Award Ceremony…

Last week, I was meeting with a client who had been a patient of mine at the adolescent, residential treatment center where I worked for 13 years. “Do you remember the award ceremonies you guys had every Thursday?” She asked. How crazy that after only almost two years since my resignation, I had almost entirely forgotten about the award ceremonies. “Oh, yeah, I forgot about those.” I said, laughing to myself. “I used to love getting those awards.” She said. “You would always give me an award for being the happiest patient of the week or the most creative journal writer. It felt good to have someone notice something in me, even if it wasn’t even true.” But they were true. And instantly, I remembered back to every Thursday afternoon as I would sit in my office, blank sheets of white, copy paper and large markers in every color, and make awards like, “Patient with the Best Family Communication” or “Most Stylish Outfits for Treatment.” I also remembered in my last year, that I became extremely creative with journal assignments and gave extensive journal questions every night that my patients were asked to answer. Typically they were geared for one patient in my group to learn something from, but rarely were they aware, until we would process it in group and they would realize that a specific assignment had been meant to lean in their direction.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in the real world we had Award Ceremony every week? Growing up, my mother and I would watch the Academy Awards every year and we would talk about how someday I would write a great screenplay, lavish with southern belles and alcoholic fathers, all very Tennessee Williams, with treacherous sarcasm slapped in the faces of the young actors, while my mother would dream about costuming these same actors with ornate gowns designed by none other than Edith Head herself. We would eat popcorn and lay on the floor and scream as each person came onto the screen and we would hold our crossed fingers up to the air before the television. Some years, there were great disappointments, and in others, like the years that Julia Roberts won for “Erin Brockovich” or Hilary Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry”, there were loud screams of excitement. And in other years, such as when Geraldine Paige won for “Trip to Bountiful”, we would practice our acceptance speeches with the same grace and humility. Ahhhhhh…But where else do we find that kind of honor. I thought I would find it when I left the treatment center where I worked. And maybe, because of a few poor choices on my part towards the end, I didn’t get the send off I expected. But it would have been nice, nonetheless. But I got what I deserved. It wasn’t in the small party they through for me, or the flowers or gift card. No, all of that was nice. But it was in one small gesture I received.
For almost the entire time I worked at that treatment center, I had worked with a woman named Cathy. She was a proud, humble, extraordinary individual, who made me feel special every day that I walked into those walls. She didn’t have to, she just did. For all thirteen years, we comforted each other, listened to each other and watched each other grow in our own direction. The last night I worked there, I stayed until 10pm, because it was family night. When I walked down the hallway, I took one last look down at all of the rooms that the many patients I had through the years had slept and had come and gone. And as I watched, Cathy wheeled her chair out in the middle of the hall and began whistling the theme song at the end of the Carol Burnett show, which is how the entire series had ended, as had every show. To us both, it was a true sign of gratitude and companionship. And who can ask for more.
Today alone, I had a client who deserved an award for “Writing a powerful letter to her mother”. A neighbor deserves one for “Always Waving to Me As I Drive Down the Street”. Maybe one for my friend’s Chad and Gracia for “Making Me Feel that My Relationship Is Normal” and one for my boyfriend for dealing with my constant challenges. Each week in treatment, one recipient would receive the coveted “Resident of the Week” for meeting all of the characteristics of a “almost perfect” resident. This week, that would have to go to my boyfriend Alex.
See how easy it is! But we forget. Every day, we forget to make people feel special and make them feel as if they deserve awards. So from here on out, I’m going to take a pad of post it notes with me every where I go and pass out little awards. I think it might can’t on. I think it just might. And who cares anyway if no one understands…We’re on borrowed time as it is!

Soul Sistah…

Several weeks ago, I received a call from a client, who I’m honored to say is also a friend. As I walked to the end of the driveway to get my mail, getting ready to go to dinner with Alex, I listened as she explained that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. To say this woman has had a difficult year would be a huge understatement. She has had curve balls, dodge balls, basketballs, well just about everything thrown at her this year and she has continued to stay standing up. She explained to me that she didn’t yet know the severity of the cancer diagnosis but would let me know when she knew something more. Her main concern at the time, was how she was going to tell her teenage daughter who was currently residing in a longterm residential program for addiction. As I got into the car, I just kind of lost it. Alex immediately knew something was wrong, obviously from my flood of tears, but assumed that it was some random memory I was having about my mom, which may have been part of the truth; the memory of some strange, foreboding diagnosis that no one really knows what to do with yet. He’s not a man of many words when it comes to stuff like this and all he said was, “I’m sure she will be fine.” And he was right.
I met with her later that week and she had one of the most positive attitudes of anyone I had seen in my office in quite some time. She stated that her marriage was improving, that she was more focused now than ever before, that she was finally able to set boundaries with her relationship with her mother and that she was able to allow her children to make their own decisions and begin to live their own lives. For once, she said, she was living for herself. She believed the cancer was the best thing that could ever have happened to her. And then I got a call a few days later that the cancer had spread. And still…her attitude remained the same. She had, in a sense, been reborn.
Last week I received a message from one of her friends asking for some advice…“so my question here would be this – how do you help someone you love going through the hell of cancer with the attitude of determination and the tools recovery have afforded us???
I really thought long and hard before answering this question. I didn’t want to give out some random him-haw of recommendations and advice and anyone that knows me knows I’m much more the sitting on the front porch giving advice therapist than any text book, doctorate holding analyst. So, I needed to be careful before answering. Or maybe not, as I decided. I would just talk about what I know.
And what I know about friendship and loyalty and how to help someone…well, I learned that all from my best friend Tonya. You would really have to know her to understand and maybe then you still wouldn’t get it. It’s in the details actually. Like how I’ll get some call late on a Tuesday just to see if I’ve seen the latest Big Brother episode. Or, a random call when the newest James Patterson book comes out. We talk almost everyday, but those are the calls that set the foundation for our friendship because that’s how it all began. It’s in how she sees her only son Nick getting older, moving up in high school, and although I can tell she misses the days when they’d dance around the kitchen and she’d help him with his math homework(those were the Wednesday nights I knew never to call or stop by), she allows him to grow up and become a man. It’s how she still looks at her husband with love, but really lust some days and talks about how sexy she still thinks he is. And I see it in her eyes. It’s in the way she can whip up a bad ass buffet on her kitchen counter in about five minutes for all of us to eat and doesn’t even ask for a thank you. It’s in the way she talked to me through all of my mother’s illness and death and how she will be there with me when I have my little dog put to sleep.
When my mother got too sick to leave her bed, Tonya and I went over to her house one night and stretched out on her bed. Tonya jumped right into the conversation, complimenting my mom on how she looked and telling her we had to get her better. And she did it for her, but it was also for me. She’s my friend becaus she left for Florida, the day my mother died, for a much needed vacation with her husband, and she respected me enough to not come back and enjoy herself. And she allowed me to depend on other people. She’s my friend because she tells me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear. And she realizes that sometimes what I need to hear is what I want to hear. She’s the only one that it really mattered that I got approval to have my dog put to sleep, one, because she loves all animals and two, because she loves Griffin and I. And she said it was time, so I knew that it was. And she was right.
In over twelve years of knowing each other, I can remember only one time that we got into a fight. And it lasted less than 12 hours. And it was because I hurt her feelings, which we know better than to do, but realize it might happen from time to time. We’ve been through a lot, this ole gal and me, and we’ll be through a lot more together I hope. She’ll be the one standing next to me the day I get married. We laugh, we cry, we vent mostly and gossip often.
But what I have learned about friendship through her, is that it is consistent. I know what to expect from her because she is always consistent. She doesn’t lie to me, she is always loyal, she is there for me unless her family needs come first, which I expect. And what I expect from her is that she will always be buying a new pair of Uggs, she’ll always have a block of cheese in her fridge, a brand new novel folded over on the table and a house full of people at any hour of the day. She is dependable. And that is what a true friend is…consistent. I know tomorrow if I got sick, she would be right there next to me asking me what WE were going to do about it. She would not sugar coat it. She wouldn’t make it pretty. She would look it in the eye like a bully on a playground and then walk over and give it a hug. She would probably drive me around to get a fountain coke and take me to my doctor’s appointments. She’d board my dog and bring me movies and books. But she does that already. She’d just up the ante a little and make sure no one got in my safe zone. She’d be my Shirley McClaine in Terms of Endearment. I love her. And I’m pretty sure she loves me.
Every year, we rent a house on Lake Norris, Tennessee with a bunch of friends. Last year, we stayed at Tonya’s cousin’s house, which had this long stair case down to the lake. Every day, Tonya would load a cooler, have a bunch of towels around her neck,(with her matching Ed Hardy Tee-shirt and baseball hat of course)and head down to the lake, so she only had to make one trip. Me, I’m different. I didn’t care if I ran up and down that staircase fifty times, but I’d bitch about it every time. That pretty much sums up our friendship. We’re both so different aiming at the same thing. She’s calm and planned out while I’m scattered and frenzied half the time. But in the end, we’re both just floating in the water, a diet coke in our hands, laughing our asses off about the woman we found on top of a snow bank in the blizzard, or something funny her dog Gypsy did, or something funny our friend Lis said, or some old story about my mom. She allows me all of that.
And that, my dear, is how you help a friend. By always, painfully so, being yourself. She is my soul sistah, my mojo mama, my best friend and my ally! I love ya lady! You help them through the hell because you’re with them through the heaven. And that…is the truth.
There is a great scene in the movie, “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”, which shows Angela Bassett talking to her dying friend Whoopie Goldberg. She begins dancing and singing and talking about “Old Charlie” in the hospital room. It is absolutely one of the most endearing scenes in any movie because it glorifies the power of friendship in life, and in death. And we’re all gonna die someday…because we’re on borrowed time as it is.