Thursday, February 15, 2018

Dear Congress: If Mental illness Causes Mass Shootings, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

It’s easy to blame mental illness, but we fail to mention that treatment works and recovery is possible for many.

For mothers of teenagers like me, news about a school shooting never gets any easier. We experience the same dread, the same despair, the same fear that someone will attack our children’s school. In between mass shootings, we drill our children on what they would do. We check on their social media accounts. We try to pretend that there’s some sense of safety in a world that always seems full of random, unpredictable violence.

I’m the mom CNN used to call whenever there was a school shooting. And today, one day after 17 children who are the same age as mine did not come home from school because of another mass shooting, I’m angry. Predictably, politicians have tweeted meaningless “thoughts and prayers.” Also predictably, some Republicans have tried to shift the blame for the latest massacre to the isolated actions of a “mentally disturbed individual.”  

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting five years ago, I shared my story of parenting a child with violent behavioral symptoms of a then-undiagnosed mental illness in a viral essay entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In that essay, I wrote, “It’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.” 

Now, I’m concerned that we are having the same blame and shame conversation without any meaningful action, as this viral Facebook post shows.  

Today, with the correct diagnosis (bipolar disorder) and treatment that works, my son Eric lives in recovery. In 2016, he even gave a TEDx Boise talk about his experiences.  Eric is a normal high school senior who, like many of the Parkland, Florida students, is planning for college next fall.

Today, I feel that blaming mental illness for an epidemic of violence in the wake of so many mass shootings has become a meaningless trope. If politicians and the National Rifle Association really believe that mental illness causes mass shootings, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is. Here are a few suggestions:

1.       Provide funding for research into treatments and cures, perhaps by donating the millions of dollars that the National Rifle Association gives to their campaigns.  

2.       Continue to support parity for mental and physical health, currently required by the ACA but already under threat in my own state.  

3.       Stop blaming children and their parents for the appalling lack of community mental health services and supports.  

4.       Understand that when treated, people who have mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Treatment works and recovery is possible.  

5.       Adopt reasonable and bipartisan gun control measures that focus on suicide prevention, since more than 60% of deaths by gun violence in the U.S. are completed suicides, a tragedy that disproportionately affects the brave men and women who serve in our military.  

Most people can agree that universal background checks and allowing the government to track gun violence statistics (currently prohibited by federal law) are good first steps to better understanding and controlling our nation's clear gun problem.

To be transparent, I live in Idaho, a gun-loving state. I grew up in a family that hunted, and my brothers taught shooting sports at Boy Scout camp. I have enjoyed shooting sports in the past. While I do not personally have guns in my home because of my son’s illness, I know many responsible gun owners, some of whom live in recovery. 

Yes, it’s true: people who have mental illness can be responsible gun owners, which is why mental health advocacy organizations including the National Alliance on Mental Illness believe that “Federal and state gun reporting laws should be based on these identified traits, not mental illness.”   

People who are in treatment for mental illness and are compliant with treatment should not be treated any differently than anyone else. To focus on mental illness as the sole cause of mass shootings is a clear example of the pervasive discrimination and fear in our society. In fact, while it’s true that at least one-third of mass shooters seem to have had an untreated mental illness, a more common predictor of this kind of violence is a history of animal abuse or domestic violence, as is the case with the Florida shooter. Both of these deplorable behaviors are actual crimes, and both of them should require immediate intervention including loss of gun rights.

But mental illness is not—and should not be—a crime.

It’s time to act.  Build the community mental health treatment centers. Fund research into cures. And most importantly, stop blaming by association the millions of good people who live in recovery for the violent actions of a few.

Monday, February 5, 2018

We Are All Star Stuff

Cosmic Webs, Neurological Disorders, and Human Compassion
Image credit: GUI.Brush Blog,
On a recent Friday evening, I took my 12-year-old daughter to a free Boise State University public astronomy lecture presented by Dr. Christy Tremonti,  assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who leads a sky-scanning spectrometry project to map the chemical composition of galaxies. If Walt Whitman had heard this learned astronomer, I promise he would not have been bored and wandered outside to stargaze. With visible excitement, Tremonti shared the realization, expressed by Carl Sagan, that “We are star stuff.”

“Think about it,” Tremonti gushed. “Right now, the blood flowing in your veins—in every single person’s veins—contains iron that was born in the center of a star.” 

Tremonti then touched briefly on the mysterious dark energy and dark matter that make up 95% of the universe.  She showed the audience a new (to me) model of galaxy creation, with galaxies forming as nodes at the intersections of a cosmic web. To me, this image looked remarkably like the human brain’s neural network. 

I’m not the first person to make this observation. In a 2017 Nautilus article, astronomer Franco Vazza and neuroscientist Alberto Feletti observed:
It is truly a remarkable fact that the cosmic web is more similar to the human brain than it is to the interior of a galaxy; or that the neuronal network is more similar to the cosmic web than it is to the interior of a neuronal body. Despite extraordinary differences in substrate, physical mechanisms, and size, the human neuronal network and the cosmic web of galaxies, when considered with the tools of information theory, are strikingly similar.   
As I thought about the astonishing similarities between our brains and the universe, my mind turned to the news of Morgan Geyser’s 40-year sentence to a mental institution. Morgan and her friend Anissa Weier were just 12 years old, the same age as my daughter, when they carried out a plan to stab their friend in an attempt to appease Slenderman, a shadowy mythological Internet figure who epitomizes the unseen dark matter of the World Wide Web. 

Under a cruel and misguided Wisconsin law, Morgan and Anissa were both charged as adults and both pled guilty, Morgan to attempted first-degree murder, and Anissa to being party to a crime. While incarcerated, Morgan was diagnosed with juvenile-onset schizophrenia, a rare and serious neurological disorder that can cause a child’s sense of reality to bend and break. 

I met Morgan’s mother Angie shortly after the attack. Angie was emotionally bruised and battered from the media circus that assaulted her family. As often happens in cases where children are charged with sensational crimes, the Internet determined that Angie was undoubtedly to blame. She was a terrible mother. 

I can personally relate—when my essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” went viral five years ago, I immediately became the Internet’s Exhibit A for bad parenting, all because I talked about my child’s then-undiagnosed mental illness. 

In fact, Angie Geyser is a remarkably competent and caring mother by any standard of measurement. She is involved in both her children’s lives, has a clear moral compass and models it for her children, and works hard to provide them with a stable and supported life. After Morgan’s diagnosis, Angie fought tirelessly to get her daughter medical care, since untreated psychosis can cause brain damage.   

Morgan Geyser, treated, with her mother Angie in 2017
(photo used by permission of Angie Geyser)
In April 2016, I interviewed Angie by telephone, planning to write an article about her experiences. While I ultimately concluded that the subject matter—a mother losing her child—hit too close to home for me personally to write about it,  one line from that interview with Angie has stuck with me: 

“She’s herself again. She is treated and now she is our Morgan again, the sweet loving child we knew. She is not a danger to herself or others.”

This statement was so significant because anecdotally, my experience was exactly the same. My own child was sick with an undiagnosed mental illness and often had violent behavioral outbursts. In 2013, after my blog post caught the attention of a specialist in pediatric bipolar disorder, Eric was correctly diagnosed, started treatment including medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes, and it worked. For five years now, my son has lived in recovery. And in fact, that outcome is common for people who live with mental illness. When treated, they are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.  

But sadly, most people in our society live in fear of those who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. While these mental illnesses affect just 4% of the population, they cause a whirlwind of “dark matter” in the media. Charging children as adults in itself is horribly wrong, but what happened to Morgan because of her mental illness is just as bad. Our fear of people like Morgan Geyser far outweighs our fear of the unknown and unseen universe.

This pervasive cultural fear leads to harsh consequences for those who commit crimes while living with mental illness. In fact, research has shown that “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” pleas result in longer incarceration times than people would have incurred if they had just pled guilty. New York Times writer Mac McClelland wrote in 2017:
Though forensic detentions get little attention, they can range from ethically questionable to flagrantly unconstitutional and illegal. In 1983, a national study found that Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. patients often lost their freedom for twice as long as those actually convicted of the same offense.
Another type of plea now available in 20 states, “Guilty but Mentally Ill,” also tends to result in longer institutional stays and is opposed by the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.   

What if Morgan Geyser had been diagnosed with a brain tumor instead of schizophrenia? Would people have been so quick to blame her and her mother? 

In fact, researchers are increasingly understanding schizophrenia as a biological disorder of neural networks, the brain’s “cosmic web.” One 2016 study noted that “Cognitive impairments are one of the core symptoms associated with schizophrenia, and manifest even before the onset of the disorder. Altered neural networks involving PFC contribute to cognitive impairments in schizophrenia.”  

Today, Morgan is in treatment, but it took 19 months from her initial diagnosis to get the medical care she needed—and treatment is not always guaranteed for people who have mental illness in prison. Her mother told me that Morgan “wants to stay on medication. She feels better. She has insight into her illness now which she didn’t have previously.”

If Morgan had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that caused her actions, I like to think that most people would probably be celebrating the medical miracle that healed her. Instead, as the comments on ABC News’s interview with Morgan’s mother demonstrate, blaming and shaming continues to define the conversation about children’s mental illness.  

I want to stress here that we don’t have to feel any less sorry for Morgan’s unfortunate victim—and I am personally truly sorry—because Morgan acted under the influence of now treated psychosis. It doesn’t make the victim’s trauma any less serious or the act itself any less awful. 

What makes the whole situation more awful, however, is refusing to acknowledge that treatment has worked for Morgan, that she is in recovery, and that she is no longer a danger to herself and others. Instead, because of her brain illness, Morgan may spend the majority of her life locked away from society. Substitute “brain tumor” for “schizophrenia.” Is such a life sentence fair when the “tumor” has been treated and the behavior is no longer dangerous?

I thought about all of this—crime, punishment, parenting, and mental illnesss—as my daughter and I left the astronomy lecture. Sadly, the stars were hidden behind winter clouds, but as we drove home, we saw the glorious super moon peak through, spreading silvery tendrils across the sky, like the gasses that streamed toward galaxies or the neurochemical axons that stretch toward soma, ferrying our best guesses about reality.

My lovely, lively 12-year-old daughter chanted softly in the moonlight, “I am made of star stuff, you are made of star stuff, we are made of star stuff.” 

We only see 5% of the universe. And we still know so little about the human brain. That is why, above all else, we must be kind to each other.  If only we could replace fear with wonder, judgment with compassion. If only we could understand that all of us—parents and children, sick and well—share a fundamental cosmic reality: iron atoms forged in stars flow in our veins. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Three Wise Women Visit the Baby Jesus

Christmas Carol 2017 

As I ran through the parts to this year’s carol yesterday afternoon, I realized that I have now been composing an annual carol for nearly 20 years. This year, I returned to three-part women’s music, the form I chose for my first carol in 1998. Back then, I had a different last name, and I had not yet discovered music transcription software. A lot of things have changed in 20 years, but my love for this season hasn’t. I still celebrate the god-man whose message of radical love for the stranger and the poor seems especially relevant in 2017. 

In the olden days, we had to write
music out by hand.
This year’s carol was inspired by the #metoo movement and the stories of women that have been suppressed for millennia. I’m certainly not the first person to imagine what a visit from wise women to the baby Jesus might have looked like. In fact, a quick Google search reveals various versions of this meme: “Three wise women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would be peace on earth.”  There’s also a lovely feminist picture book by Mary Hoffman, which I plan to order as a late Christmas gift for myself.  

I took a different approach when I considered what the lost voices of women would have said to the baby Jesus and his mother. The religious historian Karen Armstrong, in her Short History of Myth, notes that humans need stories to tell us how to conduct our lives. Our current story of Christmas, with its relentless commercialism, is one that Christ—born in a stable, the child of refugees—would not recognize. The man who ostensibly leads our country, elected by self-proclaimed “Christians,” is the antithesis of everything that Christ stood for. 

In my version of the Three Wise Women myth, the women know that men will kill their god. To resurrect Christ in 2017, we have to resurrect the stories that mattered to him (hint: he did not say a single word about gay marriage or abortion, but he said a whole lot about rich people). 

In 2017, I trust the women. Merry Christmas. 

Three Wise Women Visit the Baby Jesus 
(What Child Is This?) 
By Liza Long 

In winter time, three women wise 
Went by the moon’s cold light 
To Bethlehem to see the god
Born under a new star’s light 
The Babe, the Son of Mary 

Each bore a gift for the newborn King 
More rare than silver or gold 
They gave his mother their offering 
And the infant's fate foretold, 
The Babe, the Son of Mary 

First Woman 
I bring a cloth of linen fine 
Hand-made upon the loom 
That weaves the fates of gods and men 
And spells the new god's doom 
The Babe, the Son of Mary 

Second Woman 
I bring a cup of potter’s clay 
Hand-fashioned, fired, and fine 
A cup to share at his last meal 
When his blood becomes the wine. 
The Babe, the Son of Mary 

Third Woman 
I bring a rose that blooms in snow 
Its petals soft and red 
A rose that pricks, with sharp, hard thorns 
That will crown his glorious head 
The Babe, the Son of Mary 

A cloth, a cup, and a rose 
Are the gifts the wise women chose 
For the Babe, the Son of Mary 

Then bring a cloth, a cup, a rose, 
Come peasant, princess to mourn him. 
While wise men kill him, wise women weep 
As they comfort the mother who bore him. 

A cloth, a cup, and a rose 
Are the gifts the wise women chose 
For the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, 
The man, the god, from Galilee 
Who gave his life for you and me: 
The Babe, the Son of Mary. 

The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What Freedom Means to Me

When I think of freedom, an equal and just society is a
big part of America’s promise. Photo taken by author at
Boise Veteran's Day Parade, November 4, 2017
Defending freedom is a calling for all Americans.

On the first Saturday morning in November, I woke up early to attend the annual Boise Veteran’s Day parade. My friend and mentor, Vietnam War veteran Ken Rodgers, was one of four grand marshals. His award-winning documentary film Bravo: Common Men, Uncommon Valor, tells the rough story of the siege of Khe Sanh from the perspective of the American survivors. Ken was one of them, a bona fide American hero. 

Veteran’s Day is an annual opportunity for me to reflect on the legacy of military service my father, my grandfather, and so many other brave men and women left to our country. Like Ken, my father fought in Vietnam; I wrote about what it means to grow up as the daughter of a United States Marine here

Growing up as the daughter of a United States Marine means I cry pretty much any time I see the Stars and Stripes. It means I always stand (and always cry) for the national anthem. 

And it means I unequivocally and passionately support the free speech rights of those who don’t stand for the anthem because they are protesting unjust treatment. (Prediction: History will remember Colin Kaepernick as an American hero and President Donald Trump as an American traitor).

The next day, on Sunday morning, I woke up early and drove across town to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Reverend Sara LaWall’s sermon focused on the urgent need to create “thick” communities where people are encouraged to be their best selves. The sermon was based on a popular David Brooks essay, “How to Leave a Mark on People.”  I am reading Brooks’s 2015 book The Road to Character now, as an antidote to the daily assault of unprincipled characters who dominate our screens and our Twitter feeds, the Predator in Chief first among them.

While I was at church in Boise, in a tiny Texas town outside of San Antonio, a congregation was massacred at the close of their Sunday services. Children were among the victims. The usual “thoughts and prayers” tweets from politicians ensued, but people on my social media feeds seem to have given up on reasonable discussions about guns—instead, we shrug and say, “This is just the price we pay to live free (and die free) in America today.” 

Maybe Newtown took it out of us. Or Santa Barbara. Or Roseburg. Or Orlando, Or Charleston. Or Tennessee. Or Las Vegas (was that nightmare just three weeks ago?).

After church, my husband and I trudged cheerfully through the November rain to deliver campaign literature for Boise’s first Latina candidate for city council. Lisa Sanchez is the embodiment of the American Dream, and she wants to share that promise with everyone in our community. Raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to support their family, Sanchez was the first in her family to graduate from college. She is committed to living wages, ending homelessness, and “bringing everyone to the table.” 

When I think of freedom, an equal and just society is a big part of America’s promise. This is exactly what our brave veterans fought to protect and preserve—an America that rewards everyone who is willing (and able) to work hard, and an America that understands the need for empathy, compassion, and community for those who are in need. 

I don’t see that America reflected in my news feed. Instead, I see fear, hatred, and corruption—and I don’t think these all too common stories are #fakenews. As a student of the Classics, I see a republic in crisis. Our democracy needs all of our boots on the ground—now—if we are going to prevail against the forces that threaten to destroy us. We have to get educated, and we have to vote. 

But we also have to return our individual focus to building Brooks’s thick communities. One of my favorite parts of church is when we turn and greet our neighbors. I also love the power of holding hands with each other and affirming our faith. These powerful rituals can extend to our communities. 

When people inevitably annoy us, what if we could think, “peace be with you” instead of shouting “f%$k you?” On social media, when someone posts something we disagree with, what if we could look for common ground first? 

I’ve made a point of engaging with people who hold views that are different from mine because a) I don’t know everything; and b) even when we disagree about some things, I am often surprised by how much we actually agree on. I have certainly found this to be true in mental health advocacy. Often, when advocates move beyond the false dichotomy of either/or to the more inclusive community of both/and, we find unexpected moments of insight and connection. Every single person in America—Republican, Democrat, or Independent—should be actively looking for ways to connect with people who disagree with us, "for Heaven and the future's sakes."

By the way, I don’t think that thick communities have to depend on existing church communities. In fact, many of the most moral and principled people I have ever met have eschewed formal religion (It’s true! Atheists are ethicists! See “Good Minus God” for an example).

But we need to find brave new ways to practice both group compassion and civic discourse. This challenge requires us to move out of our comfortable but meaningless echo chambers. For example, people may agree more than they think they do on the need for a social safety net. But when Republicans cast Democrats as nanny state enablers, and Democrats respond by calling Republicans cold-hearted Scrooges, children go hungry and working families suffer. In fact, most of the Democrats and Republicans I know actually want to help those in need and are committed to finding solutions. The difference, as I see it, is that Democrats tend to look to state-run solutions while Republicans prefer private ones. 

How do we return to the promise of America? Today, defending freedom is a calling for us all. It starts with educated voters and qualified candidates. It starts with holding our elected leaders accountable, even when it seems like so many of them have checked their consciences at some far distant door (perhaps in Moscow?). It starts with civic discourse, the sincere wish of “peace be with you” to everyone, not just people who affiliate with our political party.

And it starts with positive ideas for real growth and community. I see that kind of energy in the Boise City Council election. I do not see this positive energy in either the Democratic or Republican national parties. 

Our country was founded on principles of individual liberty. But only by returning to a common identity by finding agreement on what it means to be American—will we see our way to Katherine Lee Bates’s beautiful future, with “liberty and justice for all.” 
Oh, beautiful for patriot dream  
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, 
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! 
God shed his grace on thee, 
And crown thy good with brotherhood 
From sea to shining sea.
Yeah, that one makes me cry too. Now go vote, y’all!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Doorways and Lifelines

My son is 18 now, and he deserves
affordable healthcare.
Why the Cassidy-Graham Healthcare Bill Must Not Become Law

Today, I am thinking about two-faced Janus, the Roman god of doorways. Today, my son crosses a threshold from childhood to adulthood. Last night, he went to bed a minor; when he woke up this morning, he was an adult.

He seems ready enough. I’m not sure I am.

Today, on my son’s 18th birthday, I woke up to the news that Republican senators are once again attacking healthcare protections that have provided an additional 20 million Americans with insurance, ended discrimination against those with preexisting conditions, and required that all health insurance plans cover essential health benefits. 

One of those essential health benefits is mental healthcare. The proposed Cassidy-Graham bill, a Republican end-run around true bipartisan healthcare reform, would destroy parity and end coverage for essential health benefits. For my state, Idaho, which failed to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the proposal could devastate healthcare services for our neediest citizens.

The proposed bill would directly harm my son.

My now 18-year-old son has bipolar disorder, a chronic health condition that can adversely impact his quality of life. He manages his bipolar disorder well with medication, therapy, and support groups. But all of this comes at a cost. 
Republicans are standing at the
threshold. I'll be happy to
show them the door if they
take my son's healthcare away.

Before the Affordable Care Act, I was unable to afford a policy that covered my son’s mental health. I personally know several families who have gone bankrupt trying to pay for mental healthcare for their children

This is not the world our children deserve. Mental illness is not a choice or a character flaw, any more than physical illness is. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel has become a passionate advocate for affordable healthcare because of his infant son’s preexisting heart condition.   

I feel the same way about my now adult child’s bipolar disorder.

Is the Affordable Care Act perfect? No. Is it a lifeline for many millions of Americans who now have healthcare coverage? Undoubtedly.

Our country’s elected Republican leaders are standing at a moral threshold. If they don’t choose the right direction for healthcare, I will do everything I personally can in coming elections to show those heartless jerks the door.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Notes After a Fall

I don't want to be a perennial. I just want to take a nap. Detail
from "The Garden of Earthly Delights," by
Heironymus Bosch, c. 1490-1510
Why I Don’t Want to Be a Perennial

On a golden Friday summer afternoon sometime in 2017, I tripped and fell. One minute, I was walking home from the neighborhood pool with my tweens (a new word that, like so many things, seems to have been invented by marketers to sell me stuff I don’t need), trying to engage in a conversation with my 12 year old daughter about her favorite Minecraft machinima star, Aphmau of "My Street."

And the next, I was lying on the ground, my cheek pressed against the cool, sprinkler-soaked concrete sidewalk.

The moment when my ankle turned and I realized I could not maintain my upright stance was a slow one. I think it’s what enlightened people call “mindfulness” or “living in the moment.” I was definitely living in the moment as I resigned myself to an inevitable and embarrassing collision with the concrete. I noticed the white SUV approaching from up the street. I noticed a peach that had rolled from a nearby tree, its fuzzy surface pocked here and there where opportunistic insects had enjoyed its succulent flesh.

“Mommy, are you okay?” It felt like hours but must have been just seconds when my daughter asked me the obvious question. I considered her words as if they were the first premise of an Aristotelian syllogism, noting with dispassionate curiosity that adrenaline numbness was flooding my body and masking any pain. My elbow had erupted in a bright flower of blood, and my pants were torn and blood soaked at the knee.

My new pants. As in, I had actually paid real money for these pants in a real boutique, which is something I do maybe once a year. Of course, I bought them on sale, but still.

“This is what I get for not buying these pants at a thrift store,” I tell my daughter, moving swiftly to the question of cosmic accountability. It was clear that by violating my own commitment to sustainability, I had incurred the wrath of something or someone I don’t believe in, resulting in my inevitable karmic crash on the pavement.

Lying on the pavement, experiencing enforced mindfulness, I realized two truths. First, I was in fact “okay,” except for the kinds of bloody scrapes that were a regular fixture of my summers when I was my daughter’s age and spent most of my vacation days running around in the woods (if I let my own children do that today, I would likely be reported to CPS as a negligent parent).   

And second, the same kind of fall, forty years from now, will likely kill me.

Everything is relative.

As I hauled myself to my feet and walked up the hill to my house, half-listening to my daughter’s cheerful commentary on the “My Street” ‘ships she was predicting for the next season, I thought about an article shared widely by my Facebook circle of friends a few months ago. The title of the article was as clickbaity as they come: “Why Women of 40 and 50 Are the New ‘Ageless’ Generation.” 

The article’s premise, in case you somehow managed to miss it, is that women of a certain age are no longer constrained by age. They are, in fact, perennials. The 40-ish woman who coined the term, Gina Pell, defines it like this: 
“Perennials are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers.”
My female friends of a certain age were pretty self-congratulatory in seeing themselves this way, and I honestly am happy that they can identify with this lovely idea. But when I read the article, I laughed until I cried. Let’s just say that the life I live right now is anything but blooming.

Why did I fall on a summer afternoon? Probably not because the thrift store gods were punishing me. It was probably because I have a lot of things on my mind. Among them:

Is my mom okay? My indomitable mother, the woman who dragged her children to the top of Mount Whitney for her 64th birthday seven years ago, got sick this summer. I’ve never seen her this sick. She’s the only parent I have left.

Are my kids okay? My older two boys are both trying to navigate the college admissions process, one as a transfer student, the other as a high school senior. Don’t know how scary college is? Try reading Sara Goldrick Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream,  which really opened my eyes to the crisis our country is facing in higher education. I now understand that I’m not alone in wondering how on earth the federal government expects me to allocate one fourth of my family’s gross income as our “expected family contribution” toward soaring and unpredictable college costs. When I went to college, I worked long hours in the summer to save up enough for the school year. Twenty-five years later, my son works the same long hours for roughly the same pay I made in 1992, which is nowhere near enough to afford the costs of our state school, let alone some fancy college.

Is my community okay? Like many areas around the country, my Boise community has experienced acts of hate directed at our most vulnerable populations. I volunteer and donate and protest, and so do many others, but it feels like nothing we do will ever be enough to fill the void created by hate and fear.

Is my country okay? I probably don’t need to expound on this one.

Am I okay? My daughter asked me the question, and I’m still working on the answer. I bandaged the wounds, and they are healing. I’m bandaging the more complex wounds to my soul by reading biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas’s 1974 collection, The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher.   Lewis writes:
We are, perhaps uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still…. We have high expectations and set high standards for our social behavior, and when we fail at it and endanger the species—as we have done several times in this century—the strongest words we can find to condemn ourselves and our behavior are the telling words “inhuman” and “inhumane.”
My middle years are marked by pervasive failures of those high expectations for social behavior. In public, men say unspeakable things about women, about people, about each other. The danger to our species seems never to have been greater, and Lewis’s twentieth-century hopes that humans would unite to become the conscious mind of the planet seem na├»ve and idealistic, like something a young white male Bernie Sanders supporter would say (also, he would want free college).

Midlife is not, for me, a time of exploration. It’s a time of existential exhaustion. And no $50 jade eggs for my vagina or yoga classes with beer or any other ridiculous self-care concepts are going to make me less tired.  

I don’t want to be my personal brand. I don’t want to take some time for self-care. I don’t want to have a glass of wine. Or two. Or six.

I want my younger children to know the joy of running free in the woods on a summer afternoon. I want my newly adult children to be able to graduate from college without crushing debt. I want my mother to be able to consider retirement without fear of financial consequences. I want my community to be safe for everyone—refugees, trans folks, atheists, human beings. I want justice. I want freedom. I want a healthy planet. I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.

I don’t want to live forever, blooming and taking risks and staying current with the latest technology. Mostly, I just want a nap. Also, a new pair of pants. This time, I’ll buy them at a thrift store.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Joy in the Journey

The author and her sister on Pioneer Day in Provo, Utah
Learning How to Feel Human Again after a Faith Transition

Note: This is the text of a sermon I gave at the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Sunday, July 23, 2017.  I tend to ad lib quite a bit, so the audio at may differ from this written version. Also, talking about my faith transition still terrifies me. If you're going through one yourself, hang in there. If you know someone who is currently questioning their faith, be gentle.

My youngest child turned twelve a few weeks ago. As I watched her excitement at becoming a Beehive and entering the LDS church’s Young Women’s program, I reflected back on my own transition to womanhood within the church. When I was a Beehive, the church had a program called Personal Progress. With no disrespect to the Boy Scouts, this program was essentially like earning an Eagle Scout award, only much, much harder, and with none of the recognition the boys got for their achievements. Plus ca change.

As a new Beehive, I was encouraged to write a list of my major life goals. Ten years ago, in the summer of 2007, I had accomplished all of them. Married in the temple to a tax attorney who managed the money of those 1% folks? Check. Earned an advanced degree in Classics that proved I was smart but not really necessary to the workforce? Check. And like all good Mormon mothers, I was using my degree at home, where I taught my four children about Julius Caesar’s Gallic wars while canning apricots and singing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”

Most importantly, in 2007 I was called as a Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward. Now for those of you who don’t know what a Gospel Doctrine teacher is, or why I would aspire as a 12-year-old girl to become one, let me explain. The Gospel Doctrine teacher is the highest church calling to which a Mormon woman can aspire. Relief Society President? Pshaw! Who wants to be in charge of a bunch of women? The Gospel Doctrine teacher was responsible for teaching scripture every Sunday to the women AND the men in the ward.

And if there’s one thing I loved as a child, it was Mormon scripture. 

I was that kid who wrote my English and history papers on Joseph Smith and the Restored Gospel. I wasn’t just Mormon—I was in love with Mormonism. Church doctrine was the framework through which I interpreted everything about life, but most especially, it was how I decided whether or not I was a good person.

To its credit, the Mormon church makes this determination fairly easy in some senses. There are simple checklists—no coffee or tea, no alcohol, no sex before marriage—that were pretty easy for me to follow. The rubric that defined my sense of self-worth was simple too: “Wickedness never was happiness,” as the Book of Mormon prophet Alma says. Translation: if you aren’t happy, you’re a sinner.

Then there was another one of my favorite life-defining scriptures, from the New Testament Book of Matthew: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.”

In my 2014 book, The Price of Silence, about raising a child who has mental illness, I wrote about this scripture: “Mormon women bear the brunt of this perfectionism, often being expected to give up work outside the home, devote themselves to lay church service, raise perfect, polite, academically gifted children; grow a garden; preserve what they grow in their garden for their two-year food storage; and of course, stay thin, fit, and smiling in their ‘modest is hottest’ outfits, standing beside their equally perfect, priesthood-holding husbands.”

In 2007, I was THAT Mormon woman, the one who always sent the best Christmas cards (who needed to know how many hours I spent in Photoshop to achieve those perfect pictures?). I was the woman my 12-year-old-self had wanted me to become. But though I was living the dream, I was not happy.

Four months after I was called as Gospel Doctrine teacher, I had what can only be described as a revelation. I was teaching one spring Sunday about the risen Savior from the Book of Mark when I read this scripture for probably the thousandth time: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 16:16).

And I thought, for the first time in my life, “Why? Why do I have to be saved?”

Of course, this thought is not unique. Christian apologists from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis have explored the question of salvation. Lewis wrote, “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might be even more difficult to save.”

Why isn’t it enough just for people to be nice? Because Eve ate an apple? Because Adam blamed Eve when God asked him about it? Because God said so? What if—bear with me here, I was new at this!—the initial premise, the unmoved mover—was false?

Some people, seeking knowledge of God’s love, describe praying, sometimes for years, to know the truth. The Book of Mormon gives its readers this exact challenge.

Some people, like my husband Ed, never bother to ask God about anything. And some people ask, and pray, and they know that it is true. Meanwhile, as I know from personal experience, some people do exactly what the Book of Mormon tells them to—ask, pray, want the truth—and know that it is not true.

If I were still Mormon, right now, I would bear my testimony to you. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know the church is not true, that I know its teachings are harmful to people I love, that church doctrine is wrong about gay marriage, God’s love, women’s roles in life, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Also, I still think many Mormons are very nice people. In the name of whichever god or gods you choose or do not choose to believe in, Amen.”

I realized that I don’t need to be saved. That you don’t need to be saved either. That the whole premise of needing to be saved is, to put it mildly, problematic.

That April Sunday in 2007, I taught my final lesson as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. I could not teach things that I knew were false. But still I limped along in Mormonism, thinking perhaps there might be a moral compromise, some way to keep both my community and my integrity.

There wasn’t. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we cannot have our cake and eat it too (Also, the cake is a lie). A year later, a song from Badly Drawn Boy, “Long Way Round,” gave me the courage to move forward, beyond the moral constraints of my faith: “Sit and wait for the day when your life might change, and that day never comes. All the changes must come from you.” 

But when I abandoned the framework of Mormonism, I lost my entire cultural language for describing meaning and purpose in life.

(I lost my first marriage too, and that is another story.)

When I left the religion of my youth, I didn’t know how to feel good anymore. For my entire life, my conception of what it meant to be happy was defined by a set of arbitrary rules perpetuated in the culture into which I once thought I was born because of divine destiny but I now realized was total chance.

The poet Mary Oliver, among others, became my new scripture. According to the Gospel of Mary Oliver, “You don’t have to be good.” 

I don’t! Or at least, I don’t have to be good the way Mormons or anyone else for that matter defines good.

The sense of freedom in those early days was exhilarating but terrifying. No longer could I check my critical thinking skills at the church door. Suddenly, the responsibility to define morality was all on me. By rejecting the Mormon God’s plan for happiness, I was now responsible for creating my own plan.

And through stops and starts, and more failures than successes on that ten-year pilgrimage away from doctrine and toward meaning, I’ve finally started to learn the lesson I need most. 

Happiness is not about the plan. It was never about the plan. Happiness is finding joy in the journey.

One of the hardest things I’ve learned on this journey is how to be honest in identifying my emotions. I don’t think this is a problem unique to the LDS church, by the way. I think the inability to identify our emotions honestly, to embrace and accept the negative emotions as well as the positive ones, is a malady that has infected our entire culture. We see it in our Instagram and Facebook feeds. We see it in the toxic Gospel of Prosperity that threatens to destroy our democracy—in the idea that wealthy people deserve to get all they can while the poor deserve nothing, not even our compassion.

Some of you may know that I have a part-time largely unpaid “job” as a mental health advocate that I took on after my 2012 essay, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  went viral. My second son has struggled with mental illness for his entire young life, and he has taught me so much about what it means to be happy.

One specific skill my son taught me was how important it is for all of us to recognize and define our emotions in the moment we are experiencing them. Psychologists call this activity “affect identification.” It starts with the premise that our feelings—good, bad, or ugly—are value-neutral, meaning there’s no one “right” way to feel. There are simply feelings. And you are free to feel them.

It shouldn’t surprise you that most of us are not very good at this. If our religion or our culture teaches us that “good” people are happy, then we are damn well going to smile through the pain, right? According to our culture, big girls—and real men--don’t cry. Unfortunately, the consequences of our collective denial about what we feel are very real in terms of our mental and physical health.

So today, I want to teach you how to identify your feelings (for some of you, this will likely be a refresher course). I want you to close your eyes and imagine this scene. You’re having a conversation with a Donald Trump supporter. Your heart starts to pound. You feel your face flush. You have a sudden urge to leave the room.

Hit the time-out button. Stop. Name your emotion. What are you feeling? Is it anger? Anxiety? Fear? Frustration? Disgust? Shame?

If you can, write the name down on a real or imaginary notepad. Stare at the word for a minute. Slowly breathe in, and breathe out. Breathe again. And again. After three breaths, you should feel calmer. Your heart should be slowing down. You may still feel the emotion, but now, you’re in charge.

Open your eyes. That was not too hard, was it?

And yes, in case you are wondering, there’s an app for that! Mood tracking apps can help you to identify your emotions in real time. 

Instead of telling ourselves how we should feel, it’s time to start acknowledging our real feelings. It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or ashamed. Sure, it doesn’t feel too good, but as someone who has experienced clinical depression, I can tell you how grateful I am just to feel anything! Depression for me is a big world of grey, a numbness, a fog that flattens and distorts everything I encounter. I have learned to feel enormous gratitude for sadness because when I have lost something, I know that at one time, it mattered to me. At one time, it brought me joy. I am grateful for anger because it reminds me that life is unfair, that justice matters and that some things are worth fighting for.

And shame, the worst of all emotions? Well, I’m grateful for shame too. Many of the hardest truths I have learned about myself have started when I felt ashamed and let myself really feel that way.

My youngest daughter is not here with us today. She is attending her LDS ward, where she is learning, as I did at her age, that “there’s a right way to live and be happy.” I struggle daily, as my own mother must struggle in her relationship with me, mourning my daughter’s choice to stay true to her faith when I believe Mormonism’s teachings are not only wrong but actually harmful. If my daughter were here, I would tell her the same thing my still-Mormon mother would say to me: “I love you. I’m here for you, wherever your journey takes you.” And I would tell her what my father, a Mormon bishop and the best human being I have ever known, told me shortly before he died: “It doesn’t matter what I think. I just want you to be happy.”

This journey—yours and mine—is not perfect. But it’s ours.