White Out

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The words can barely skim the page
They dance, snowflakes spinning
Flurries of phrases, tossed by breezes
Pile into drifts of manuscripts
Soon blizzard is blowing
Ice crystals burning skin
Lost, wandering in white out
Each word spoken, whipped away
From frozen lips, barely speaking
Sound torn by gale forces
Tumbling thoughts never cease
But are buried in deepest white
Frosted, forlorn sentences
Having written them,
I take up the white out
And erase them all

Freed

I am a freed prisoner from my own negative
As I run I doff my black and white
Shackles fall from my feet, making them light
Cuffs slip from wrists that wave, released

From bonds I can almost float
Skim the earth, barely touching, glide
Through air that rings freedom’s bells
Hear them chiming future possibility

Shake a hint of doubt, regret and uncertainty
My feet find the path despite all these,
Leading a way toward refuge, to
Salvation promised me from long ago

There I rest, imbibe that
Chilled wine of no inhibition
Become drunk on freedom of speech
Blurt out reality that isn’t welcome

My hand unbound can take up pen
Use it like a chain-gang hammer
To sledge out pain and release
Once-fettered joy that radiates

Out from loosened heart-strings
Hands draw the bow and fire
Arrows of once-tied remorse
To kill that negative for good

I am a freed prisoner
I can fly

Owl Calling

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I hear it calling and ask
Why – what is the haunting
Cry and from whence it comes?
How can something so melancholy
Bespeak of love?
To whit, to woo –
Where do they roost,
What tree in which forrest
Echoes with longing or desire
Like a tender wing, held out
Against cold night?
Who chooses this dark hour,
When all is still and chill,
To cry for loneliness to be
Relieved, heartache soothed?
Is it him who calls to her
Or her to him ?
Who, who is sadly perched
High above on bough
Bereft, forlorn and hoping
Against hope, for some
Answer?

Tracks

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They are lines of departure and arrival
When we board that train
See those parallel tracks
Stretched to infinity
No idea they will become tracks
Of tears on our face
Footprints on our heart
Scars on our soul
Or tattoos of the divine
Or profane, left upon our skin
Thin lines of razor,
Stigmata, or texts of revelation.
They might mark
A twisted path you follow
A secret, untrodden way
Or another four lane highway
Speeding toward nowhere.
Railroaded toward oblivion
Or you hiked mountain trail to nirvana
Only to stumble off that cliff
And fall from grace
Trails of neurons
Blazed through prefrontal cortex
Brilliant sparks of light
Or dark and meandering
Lines full of despair
The rails that carry coffins
To the flaming crematorium
They are tracks of departure
From this mortal coil
Or arrival into the unknowable next

Cross Country

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Green Eggs, toast,
Jelly, Jam
“We do not like
Green Eggs and Ham”
We penned it on the back
Of a napkin from that diner
(Yes, the eggs were really green)
So we giggled, and left
Traveling cross-country
In a camper with our friends
Our tour of ‘Scenic Bathrooms of America”
Dreamed up by my best friend Karen
Only a horror-ridden tribute in our mind
So bad we had to laugh:
Drooped across sweaty seats,
Hot hair stranded across damp brows
No AC for many miles.
Then chatter turned bitter
Laughter less and less
“Don’t turn there, don’t stop
Drive more carefully, why are you
Doing that? Stop it now!”
And so we stopped
The dream fragmented
Fractured into tiny stars
Each remembered in the
Night sky of memory
We did not like
Green eggs and ham
No more sweet jelly
No more sticky jam
Just like those stars
Those pin-pricked holes
That fade out or wink
Or close their eyes.
The napkin crumpled
Camper scrapped
Did we scrap our friendship?
Give it up
Or let it fade
And forget to say goodbye?

Conflagration – Grasping at Straws

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Today, my fist is full of straws of anger, resentment, self-righteousness. I hold onto them tightly, locked in a grip of iron, steeled by my resolve to never let one ever hurt me again.

Yet, when contemplating this I feel myself on the brink of the abyss of anger, I teeter. Do I fall into the pit of rage or swan dive into it’s brimming cauldron? That way leads to the pits of hell. My fistful of straws will feel the lick of resentful flames flickering inside my heart like the fires of damnation. Compassion lost: slave to the swell of feeling that wants to erupt and swallow up the cities of the perpetrator, their streets flooded with hot lava to lap, burning, at their soul. I want the furnace heat of my anger to anneal pain into them like my pain, to scorch their ego into nothing. I want to forge a hammer on my hating anvil, to bash their heart into tiny pieces that mirror the pieces of my own. Pieces strewn along the path of pain that is seared into my existence.

This holding on is holding my mind captive, all good thoughts locked inside a cell, inside a citadel once graced by love and mercy. Now there is no room for love inside the four walls of my confinement. The Prisoner that is my ego shackled with iron handcuffs of determination to hold only my negatives…the positives held behind the brick walls, the mortar my will to continue. In fantasy I am the torturer, lashing with a whip of stinging words. Wound by wound, eye for an eye. I detest myself in detesting that very one who robbed me of my self-love, robbed me blind.

So I stumble on sightless, grasping at the smouldering straws and stuffing them deep inside. Robbed of sight, I scent the air for ashy waft of hurt so I can suck it in and hold my breath. Refusal to expel that anger, that resentment, that self-righteousness has locked air out of stifled lungs. I search groping for a piece of forgiveness, hands touching tentatively along the cobble-stone path of regret. Carefully drawing in a breath and finding one iota, searching on again for another. Following the trail of breadcrumbs of compassion, I continue…nourished more by their yeastiness and than the dry straw embers. My throat aches as I remember and thirst for the fruity wine of love that evaporated so long ago.

Sticks & Stones & Stigma

I was asked by many people that I told ‘I gave a service on stigma at my Unitarian Universalist Church’ what that meant. Our religion has often used lay-leadership to deliver meaningful messages when the acting minister is not in the pulpit. This was a service I first gave at the UU Congregation of Miami in 2012. It was updated and given at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marin, in San Rafael California.

STICKS & STONES & STIGMA

Hello, My name is Julie and I have a mental illness…Today I am sharing my own experience of stigma, labeling and stereotyping with the hope that my sharing can help others. Disclaimer: There are many different discriptive words I use today and my preferred words to describe my own situation are “Mental Health Challenges.

Our first U.U. Principle celebrates the “Inherent worth and dignity of every person”. We hopefully believe in this and put it into practice in our daily lives. We are also beginning to realize the tremendous power of words to hurt. There have been more and more stories in the media about anti-bullying campaigns and the damage of hurtful words bullies use. Our childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never hurt us” has proven false. Research reveals the possible terrible consequences of using hurtful language against children. Now we can see that for some of our most vulnerable people words can create terrible personal pain, possibly cause suicide attempts and may even result in death. Far from most typical characterizations in the media, persons with mental health issues are not the perpetrators but most often the victims of violent crime. Still, the WORDS used to describe mentally ill persons and media portrayal of those persons as dangerous or violent often color our view of them. That ‘color’ becomes stigma. Here is one definition:
STIGMA – 1)“a mark or stain” 2) “a sign, of infamy, disgrace or
Reproach”

Stigma can be perpetuated by the use of attaching a LABEL. We have such a large number of negative and hurtful words in our language and embedded in our culture. Words like: “that person is schizo”, she’s “loony”, he’s “round the bend”, they’re “so OCD”, etc. I bet you could name 10 of these words or phrases, some that you use all the time. These have become such a part of language that we say them without thinking. Also, once a group of symptoms are given a name and identified it becomes a label to attach to people. So, to call someone a ‘cancerite’ or a diabetic would be labeling that person as a diagnosis. This action can perpetuate the stigma a person experiences. Sometimes, the very people who are supposed to be assisting us with mental health diagnoses can increase the damage by the words they choose.

This quote is from Dr. Pat Deegan, a person diagnosed with schizophrenia who has become a famous researcher in the field. It is titled “Recovering our sense of value after being labeled mentally ill”.)

“Whereas before being diagnosed I was seen as a whole person, after being diagnosed it was as if professionals put on a pair of distorted glasses through which they viewed me as fundamentally ill and broken…it seemed that everything I did was interpreted through the lens of psychopathology…What mattered most to psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, psychologists and occupational therapists was that I was a schizophrenic. My identity had been reduced to an illness in the eyes of those who worked with me. It was only a matter of time before I began to internalize this stigmatized and inhumanized view of myself.”

I myself have been in several situations with other ‘professionals’ where my “label” was discussed and words like “those Borderlines” were used. This was terribly uncomfortable and made me want to leave that workshop even when I was attending as a paid professional. My belief: labels are for soup cans and t-shirts, not people. Now that we have heard of the potential harm we can do to those with mental health challenges (and often those people are ones we love, we work with, who are our parents, our children.) How can we change this situation? How can we honor that “inherent worth” if we use words to perpetuate the stigma?

Although increasing awareness and action to decrease use of hurtful words are taking place and we are becoming more educated, we still have a long way to go when it comes talking about mental illness itself. There is still considerable stigma attached to receiving or having a psychiatric diagnosis. People who readily disclose that they have another illness such as cancer or diabetes are much more likely to be silent if the diagnosis involves a mental disorder. Even now as TV ads are littered with names of antidepressants, mental illness is still very much in the shadows. In part, this is because of fears that talking candidly about having psychological problems will have unwanted social or occupational consequences. People that are truthful could be turned away, shunned, passed over, marginalized or maltreated. And the pain and suffering caused by stigma can be huge. This aspect of stigma leads to under-reporting the numbers of mentally ill persons in the general population, and to untreated or misguided treatment of illness that can damage a person’s life.

For over a hundred years medical professionals in this country believed that “schizophrenics” could not ever recover. People who had family members that they called “crazy” would ask doctors what they could do. The answer often was that they could do nothing. That their loved ones could only be a burden to society, and that they should remain in institutions and isolated from that society.

Views began to change gradually and in 2003 the President’s “New Freedom Comission on Mental Health” encouraged deinstitutionalization of persons with a mental health diagnosis in America. The phrase “least restrictive alternative” was created. Many large state hospitals inhabited by ‘chronic’ mentally ill people were closed. This was intended to release patients back into the community, where they could re-enter society by living in group homes, attending day treatment options, join club houses where they could meet. There would be places that would train them to perform jobs and assist in job placements, teach living skills that would aid their re-entry back into society. This plan proved successful for some mentally challenged people who left institutions and found a recovery path in their community and had assistance along that path.

But in our recent economy, with spiraling health care costs, the reality of the lack of health care options has made situations for many much, much worse. Mental health clinics too far away to access, too few doctors or therapists to go around are the norm across the country. Few community resources, lack of treatment or poor treatment caused many to fall through the cracks, sometimes resulting in homelessness or incarceration.

“I KNOW THEY..”

Another component of stigma is the use of stereotyping. Stereotypes are automatic beliefs or assumptions about a group of people based on knowing one (often trivial thing) about them (e.g. people who wear glasses are smart.) Because we may have heard about certain behaviors that can possibly accompany mental disorders, we may automatically and incorrectly infer that this will be true for any person we meet who has a psychiatric diagnosis. This can be heard in common statements like “people like you can’t work”.

Yes, I was actually told by a psychiatrist “You probably won’t be able to work, you should just go on disability”. Think about your own automatic assumptions about people with mental illness: they are not competent, they are dangerous, they are unpredictable, they are just looking for attention or they just need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”.

Once, in a hospital, a mental health worker said: “Wow, you are using this place like a revolving door”. The inference that I was ‘using’ the hospital by choice, that I wanted to return there repeatedly was so horribly unfair. It still stings today to remember those words.

Data shows that these stereotypes are often completely faulty. We know now that as many as one in five persons will experience some type of mental health challenge during their life. It is very important to remember: people with a diagnosis of mental illness have gone to ivy league schools, become presidents, gotten their doctoral degrees, are artists, scientists They have married and raised families.
1. Abraham Lincoln
2. Patrick Murphy
3. Britney Spears
4. Brooke Shields
5. Carrie Fisher
6. Mike Wallace – and –

7. Angelina Jolie
8. Brandon Marshall

We have learned about their secret. Now they are ‘outing themselves’. They are taking the ‘skeletons’ of mental illness out of the closet. They are proof that WE can recover and do recover, whatever recovery looks like for US.
“I am tired of hiding, tired of misspent and knotted energies, tired of the hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I have something to hide.”
― Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist and author of ‘An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness’

Today there are person-first language initiatives: using descriptions like ‘he is a person who has diabetes’, ‘she is a person with cancer’, ‘he has depression’. These words are being used more and more to describe cultural, racial and religious and sexual differences appropriately. Now we can add those with mental health challenges to that list. Remember that they are our co-workers, our children, our parents, our partners and friends or classmates. The myth that people with psychiatric illness (and I use those words carefully) are ‘disabled’ is false. But this myth is still being perpetuated by professionals, media and by our society, and by ultimately by ourselves.

The good news: today there new laws are requiring parity for mental health services. Health insurance plans can no longer turn away members with ‘pre-existing conditions’. Also, Congress has recently passed H.B. 2646 which hopefully will target stigma against those with mental health crises, and bring mental health care to many who desperately need it.

WHat can we learn and how can we change things? Begin by learning that jokes about mental illness are not funny to the people that experience it, their families or their trusted friends. Adopt person-first language when referring to those with mental health challenges. Use respectful language when addressing or discussing people at all times. Do not be quick to judge those around you, who may be struggling with or recovering from an invisible mental health issue. If you are not aware of what the labels mean or are not sure about stereotypes, ask questions, get up-to-date information and examine your own thoughts and feelings. Lobby your elected officials, share information and act to assist people instead of victimizing them.

There is a huge amount of information to gather, research and explore. “Sticks and Stones” can hurt so many ways, BUT I believe that words can also heal. By using respectful, accurate and inclusive words we can work to celebrate the inherent worth of all people.

Five Minutes…

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I opened my iPad Sunday morning and immediately became numb, paralyzed. Seconds after, heart pounding fear exploded upon reading more about the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. The throat-gulping and nerve-rattling panic came soon after. “Are my loved ones safe”?  I had spoken with them only a few days before. They were planning on going clubbing sometime over the weekend. They are gay. They live and work in Orlando. They were celebrating a birthday on Sunday.

My abject fear and immobility turned into action, I texted them, and waited for the response. I died and was reborn a thousand times until that five minutes later when I heard that they were ‘okay’. Then, my five minutes were done…my family members were safe, but still things were far from ‘okay’. The flood of emotions began: breathing raggedly, becoming faint and weak…crying is not a strong enough word. Sobbing, weeping and shaking for a long, long time in waves of emotion. Luckily I had loved ones close by. Checking with them, sending them reassurance that family members were not hurt did help some. Attending service at my faith community, where friends so accepting and lovingly held me helped also. Talking to gay friends and emailing others, seeing if they were ‘okay’. However, it was not ‘okay’ at all.

There must have been many, many hearts pounding, cracking and breaking that day and will be into the future. Many sobs, ragged, rattled people. Those were affected would have a part of them die too, I imagined. Their five minutes might have stretched out – not knowing if they lost someone, someone was lying in a pool of blood, dying or dead. Hours of checking hospitals, frantic phone calls, texts and emails. And finally the moment of knowing: shock of loss, disbelief settling into a reality that was unimaginable just five minutes before. Or relief upon finding out that their own were safe. The grief of parents, children, friends, lovers, co-workers when they learned the worst was true. That it would surely become hours, days and years and years of heartache and pain. Pain that goes on and on when a loved one is violently killed or injured, just for being who they are. In some sense, someday those affected might be ‘okay’ but most likely never in another sense. To me that loss and and that pain was and is completely pointless. That five minutes or whatever stretch of time should never have happened. But it did.

But in the midst of hopelessness there is one singular point we could focus on: speaking out and speaking up Affirming acceptance of anyone, anywhere no matter who they are or what they believe. Standing up, coming out, being vocal however that works for you. Because it could be you with that five minutes, having the heart pounding fear and throat-gulping as parts of you and yours are dying. We could all have that five minutes or thousands of minutes. It could happen at anytime.

The victims will never have that time again. It was taken from them violently. We can all celebrate their memory and the time they had. But it will still be gone as they will still be gone. Memories may fill our time but not the deep, deep hole left behind. It may seem pointless but it is not. I hope we can remember them, unite and act. Not with hatred, perhaps with or without love, but with firm resolve. I sincerely hope no one experiences the loss of those five minutes or all all of their minutes. Personally, I am dedicated to working so that doesn’t happen, and I will invest many more than ‘my’ five minutes to prevent just that.

Ending Nigh

Finished, done
Ending nigh
Heart strings slack
Blood sluggish slogs
Through brittle veins
No salvation
No new creation
Believing death
Approaches, closer
It’s fetid breath
Repels and entices
Harbinger
For what’s to come
All is lost
But somehow gained
Remembrance
Recollection
Laurels rested upon
Great deeds achieved
In reverie
Till last respiration
Indignation
Never prepared for
Unwelcomed
Welcomed
The end

Doldrums

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Doldrums. Blues. Moody Tuesday. Cloudy Day. Brain fogged. Hesitant. Unsure and stumble-footed. These could all describe the today in me and the me in today. However you slice it up, there will always be a little cloudy to offset bright sun, a little hazy to blur horizon and patchy fog to cover radiant moonbeams. Even the great ones, to whom we pray and worship or study and absorb healing from, I doubt they lived in everlasting sunshine. Shadows there must be, as we cast them ourselves, and they are cast by happenings in our lives. Other beings walk past us on our path, and draw a lengthening dark across our day. Cloudy memories haze up our perception, dipping it in droplets of tears, painful past-times cover over the days of brightness and light.

 

These shadow days are familiar and sometimes welcome. Taking off the grinning mask of eternally happy allows the rigid face muscles to relax for a while. Pretending that everything is A-Okay or Hunky Dory can weigh heavier and heavier. Just like a feather, if held arms length for hours or days or weeks, begins to feel like a ten pound bowling ball. If we could cuddle ourselves in the shadow, wrap ourselves in the cloak of sadness or regret, it would be okay. Acknowledging feelings, nodding hello to them, saying “There you are again” can give way to gently waving goodbye to them. And greeting the brightness once more.

 

Pushing darkness away often has the opposite effect. A rebounding mood, shadows lingering and taking root inside our days can result. And as we squirm on the hook of that rejection, the fish-jaw gapes and threatens to swallow us whole. Could we survive inside the belly of the whale? There, no light glimmers at all. For me this is the dreaded Depression with a capital D. No possibility of warming rays, no break in the cloud cover. Droplets of rain become downpours of pain. The sun sets, the fog rolls in and a nighttime without moonbeams or relief exists even on the brightest of days.
So today is muzzy headed and shadow covered. This is the reality of now. When I can just lean back, accept and fall into the arms of ‘Okay’ then I can rest there a while. And the clouds will clear, the fog evaporate and Sun will appear again.