Saturday, October 10, 2015

My Forty-One

Disclaimer: No fructose-based soft drink is being endorsed for consumption here.

"Happy Birthday!" 
"Thank you. I don't think they count after 40." 
"Are you really older than forty! You certainly don't look it!" 
"Thank you, thank you. Yes, I dyed my hair before I started this job. I love that reaction." 
"I don't get that reaction anymore." 
"Wait, you certainly don't look that age either!"
And so it goes. The "Over Forty" exchange among healthy socialized middle-aged Americans.

I cannot complain. Like Pablo Picasso, I too believe that "youth has no age." On this, my forty-first birthday, I am full of youth. As experienced as I am in many areas, I still feel like an amateur in many others. And, my deliberate endeavors to constantly learn new things and question what I think I already know has kept my insides well-tuned. I kept my promise to myself to surround myself with love and beauty, and truly, it has done wonders. I have closed doors and by doing so, opened others that I never thought I would have the opportunity to open. I abandoned political niceties for truth and principle. I abandoned ego for vulnerability. And as a mentor judge once taught me by his life's example, I am an open book and keep no secrets. Every day I dress - not in order to conform to expectations - rather, as if it were my last chance to enjoy this world. And I savor what is beautiful in it. And I compromise for no one. And I love and support and receive nourishment from my friends - family and otherwise.

Life is Good.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

[90-Day Mindful FB] Day 16: The Rules of Mourning

Flor
I was ten and a half years old at my grandmother's funeral.  My sisters and I attended the wake on the day preceding it.  The day before that, we sat around together in different parts of the house -- which for those somber days felt strangely quiet and sunless -- while we talked about how my grandmother's heart had stopped beating because her body was too weak and it was time for her to go to heaven.  It was unusual for my parents to be home with us, lounging in their pajamas like us, abandoning the structure of their workdays.  My grandmother was dead; she would no longer ever be in her room or in the garden, and so for at least a short time we were allowed to move forward in time slowly and irresponsibly.

"Did you love your grandmother?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Because none of you were crying at the funeral."

My best friend was eleven years old and had two older sisters, so she was pretty confident in her assessments of private situations that had nothing to do with her.  I, on the other hand, was a half year younger than her and a middle child, so her observation made me feel insecure about how I mourned, or didn't mourn, my grandmother.

Fast forward to the same funeral home, about eight years later.  I was technically an adult, but still operating with a teenage brain.  I was attending the wake of a close friend of my parents, possibly a distant relative, who had spent a lot of time in our home throughout my childhood, and who died suddenly of a heart attack in her late forties.  I arrived late and sat in one of the empty seats in the front row.  My tears were streaming down my face uncontrollably.  This happened on several occasions in my twenties; tears streaming down my face uncontrollably while mourning a contemporary of my parents.  In retrospect, I was clearly struggling with the reality of my own parents' mortality, which for some time was a thought that was too much to bear.

"She kept staring at you," my sister remarked later about that same best friend's mother, who attended the wake as well and like her daughter, couldn't help but nose her way into other people's business -- the more private, the more alluring, naturally.  "She asked someone how well you knew her."

The need to judge the appropriateness of expressive sadness proves to be recurring.  Why do we feel the need to comment on or psychoanalyze a person's visceral response to death?  Why is it an unspoken rule that the expression of sadness must correlate to the degree of intimacy between the mourning and the mourned?  Why can't someone cry at hearing about the death of a stranger without others questioning the griever's response?  Why must someone cry openly over the death of a loved one lest the bereaved be adjudged cold or not upset enough?  Are we worried about how the world will grieve our loss?  Do we feel the need to judge in order to feel control over our own mortality?

My neighbors and I lost a dear friend last week.  He was a friend to many, and indispensable to his family.  I missed the memorial service, and have yet to choose how to best pay my respects.  But in thinking back to what the world is missing without him, I might cry much more than I ever have over the loss of others who onlookers might find it would be more appropriate for me to cry over.

Friday, June 12, 2015

[90-Day Mindful FB] Day 12: Escape Into Dense Brush

Evidence of Woman

Evidence of Sound

Evidence of Man

Evidence of Community

Evidence of Survival

Evidence of Wit and Fine Motor Skills

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

[90-Day Mindful FB] Day 3: An Eight Minute FB Session is Impractical



On Day 3 of what is supposed to be a limited use Facebook hiatus, I have already broken Rule #1:
Limited-Schedule Eight-Minute Facebook Checks.  No more than three checks per day, and no more than eight minutes per session.
The fact is that eight minutes on Facebook is simply not enough time.  I find myself stopped by useful articles that I know I will not read unless I do so then and there.  So I click, become engrossed, and too soon -- mid-article -- my eight minutes is all used up.

Or, I will notice a friend's post, which will remind me that the two of us had never solidified our tentative plans.  In crafting a thoughtful message to that friend, all my time has been spent.

This behavior leaves me no time to scan the feed for birthdays, birth announcements, ISOs that I am happy to fill, or any other of the countless life-enhancing exchanges that Facebook has capitalized on.

Last night, I had the pleasure of working some messaging magic to do what I do best: connect people to each other.  This took much more than eight minutes, considering my role as liaison included standing by as my recipients crafted their replies.

So today, on Day 3, the eight-minute rule is hereby abolished.  New rules:
Twice-Daily Facebook Checks.  No more than two checks per day. 
List Tasks Prior to Checks and Adhere to Them.  Do not check Facebook without a game plan.  Make a list of what needs to be done while logged in and adhere strictly to that list (e.g., Scan for birthdays, send time-sensitive messages, click to open no more than three news articles pertaining to a particular topic).
Happy Facebooking! 

Monday, June 1, 2015

THIRD ANNUAL 90-DAY FACEBOOK HIATUS: Not an Option


On this, the first day of what has traditionally become my 90-Day Facebook Hiatus, I will not be engaging in a hiatus at all.  I refuse to disrupt my continuous contact with friends and family -- distant or close -- who wish to share news and happenings with me.  As well, I have become rather dependent on what has become this generation's White Pages.  Beyond that, I find the company's responsiveness in the form of thoughtful blocking and unfollowing features, and continuous improvements to the News Feed algorithm, make for a more pleasant social media experience than was once available to us.

Instead, this year I have come up with personal guidelines to honor the original purpose and mission of the 90-Day hiatus:

Limited-Schedule Eight-Minute Facebook Checks.  No more than three checks per day, and no more than eight minutes per session.

No Facebook in the Presence of Good Company.  I will not allow myself to check Facebook while in the company of family members and/or friends.

No Pretense.  A meaningful photograph is a captured moment, not a staged one.  I have always felt this way and encourage everyone to stay true to themselves.  You cannot become your photo -- let your photo capture you.

See you online!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

FALLING PREY: More Fiction


How did I get here?  I thought I vowed to protect myself.  If I could not protect me, who would?

I had no reservations about being in hospitals.  My whole life, my parents worked in hospitals.  As a child, I was no stranger to the Intensive Care and Geriatrics units.  As a pathologist, my dad would often get his work slides mixed in with the family trip slides, so I was no stranger to blown-up abnormal cancer cell images either.  And, sterile white walls have always made me feel safe.

What did feel strange, though it shouldn't have at this point, was my having walked into a very vulnerable situation like a lamb to the slaughter.  I thought I had asked all the right questions so as to avoid such a predicament.  What was this meeting about?  Would she be there?  Who called this meeting and why?

My mother gave nothing away, as usual.  Lots of "I don't know"s and vague mentions about this being something the doctor thought would help her.  No warnings, and specifically nothing to prepare me for the deposition-style interrogation that was about to take place.  Secreted away was any notice whatsoever that the interrogation would be conducted by her, and about me.

Typically, when surrounded by family as I was right now, one would expect to feel safe.  Not me.  Such a luxury was not my birthright.

It was a surreal hour-long meeting.  There she sat, at the head of the table, in a faded black pocket tee shirt.  She no longer appeared frightened as she did way back when (as in, before the emergency mobile crisis unit had whisked her away).  Now, she felt in control and situationally superior.  Her healthcare provider team -- social worker, psychologist, and psychiatrist -- filled out the left side of the table.  My mother, then my father, then I, filled out the right side.

My other siblings, enviably, were spared this exercise.  It was only me she was after.  After four years of therapy, things hadn't changed.  In her mind, I was still the enemy.  I was strongly suspected of being part of a conspiracy that, however topsy-turvily, was linked to a very real tragedy that the two of us had experienced fourteen years prior to this moment.  Was I an accomplice to our friend's murder?  Allegedly, yes, somehow, though she could never quite sort out the details in her copious disjointed notes or in the cryptic paranoid e-mails that she would send out periodically to random family friends.

She, in all her present glory, sat armed and ready with legal pad and pen, smirking proudly, satisfied by her upper hand.  She was medicated and stabilized now.  Yet seemingly, she hadn't changed in demeanor since the last time we shared an enclosed space together, which was years ago, and only a few weeks before she was involuntarily committed and finally diagnosed.

The questions were ridiculous, probing, accusatory, and at times meant to corner or intimidate.  I wondered whether, if instead I was on the outside looking in, I would be amused or horrified.  In this moment, I felt like an unsuspecting animal whose instincts were dulled, hence my predator's ability to lure me into her cage.  Her mother helped get me there... where was mine?

Ill-prepared, I spontaneously asked her what medications she had been prescribed and why she decided to stop taking them.  After all, I felt it was only fair that I would get to ask her questions as well.  But not at this meeting; she quickly, cunningly, and authoritatively shut me down, reminding me that although I was her sister, she would not be sharing any information about herself with me.  This was exclusively her fact-finding session.

After what seemed to be an eternal suspended state of being, the assault was over.  On our way out of the facility, almost no words were exchanged.  No comfort doled out to family members; we were not the patient so there was no duty, naturally.  It left a stinging silence.  My parents and I walked in a daze to find a place to eat -- the heavy burden weighing down our shoulders, the cloudless blue sky being our only consolation.  Really, we just needed a place to sit and process this reality that was slowly and methodically eating away at any hope of our family life being as simple as it once was.

Now was not the time to lament that I would be adjudged cruel and selfish, were I to eschew my role as the strong one.  I was not allowed to be fragile; I had a full day ahead of me filled with seemingly impossible demands and I had no bona fide mental illness to present to anyone in exchange for pity.

It is not difficult for me to understand why my mother later decided to form her own narrative about my sister's illness.  She prefers to believe that the paranoia has since disappeared, never to return again, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine.  She insists it was merely a lapse of sanity that has been permanently cured by antipsychotics.  This despite the science.  Anyone who fears a future violent episode is unkindly perpetuating a stigma.  And those annual relapses -- to admit that they happen is to make them more real than they need to be.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

INTO THE FISH TANK: A Fiction


There we were, just the two of us.  Just like the old days, except now we were sitting in a car somewhere in Brooklyn, both of us grieving.  She was grieving the loss of her young husband to a sudden and completely unexpected stroke.  I was grieving the loss of my sister to a serious mental illness.  It was at her husband's wake a few months before that the two of us reconnected.  Today she was the strong one, as she often was.  In youth, she would confront every new situation fearlessly.  In adulthood, I noticed she was no different.

Something about the mundanity of the midday traffic and the unremarkable flow of pedestrian traffic briefly fooled me into thinking that this was going to be just an ordinary day, easily forgotten.

Did we park inside the hospital garage, or did we use street parking?  I can't remember.  Soon, we were breathing in the antiseptic smell of disinfectants, standing under sturdy fluorescent lighting and surrounded by sterile walls, mostly white, with plate glass for transparency.  The plate glass was wiped clean and the double doors to my right were secured with an industrial-grade lock and alarm.  I imagine a Purell dispenser was hanging dutifully by the elevators.  One of us gave the uniformed desk attendant my sister's name.

As we stood waiting, I looked through the plate glass past the reception desk as random strangers in drab blue hospital gowns meandered aimlessly back and forth.  The view resembled a fish tank.  Everything looked as I had expected.  Until I saw her, familiar and unrecognizable all at once.

This was not my sister.  She looked too much like the others and less like herself.  How dare they dress her like someone without a name, without a family?  The lump in my throat gave way to uncontrollable tears.  Pure reflex.  I needed to pull myself together stat, because I could not let her witness me feeling this way -- horrified for her, pitying her.

She did not notice us observing her as she made her way down the hall, or as she sat at one of the tables designated for visits.  We walked over to meet her and slid into the seat like we used to do at our local McDonald's back in the '80s.  I cannot erase the memory of those manly slippers she wore as her feet shuffled forward one inch at a time, the sweat beads running down her shiny bloated face, the oiliness of her hair, the absence of emotion framed by the whites of her eyes.

This was not my sister.  She was too narcissistic to be suffering from this illness.  She was a runner-up in a beauty pageant once.  She had suitors, she had nice clothes, she was smart, coy and witty.

I had read about the tremors, as well as the other possible side effects of antipsychotics.  But it had yet to fully sink in that my sister was now a bona fide statistic; one in the kind of pool of patients represented in a study confirming the likelihood of such side effects.  On account of the medical diagnosis of her over-ten-years-long illness, until now left untreated, she had been transformed into one of those powerful stock images that might be used for fundraising purposes or an advocacy project.

"Hi!"  Our very dear old friend greeted her as if we were all there for a party.  "Can I braid your hair?" she asked cheerily.  My sister accepted the kind gesture with a blank expression that could almost be mistaken for early childhood innocence.  I sat quiet and still, struggling to rid my throat of that darn lump.  Remember when we all used to braid each other's hair, I thought.

We were not there for more than fifteen minutes when my sister finally turned to me and asked what must have been on her mind for some time.  "Can I stay with you?  I promise to take my medication.  I'll do whatever you say."

The naïveté of her request both wrenched my heart and insulted me.  So much had already happened since the time I was still that gullible person who would have given her the benefit of the doubt.  Too many lies, too much harm, too much time spent denying the unchanging nature and seriousness of the situation.  Those empty promises -- only my resolve could stop the pattern.

I did not utter much more than "no" before she stood up firmly but shakily, and abruptly ended the visit with a familiar childish "nevermind then" -- a juvenile ultimatum that was meant to make me change my answer in exchange for a tiny flickering second of sisterly warmth of the kind I hadn't seen since middle school.  Maybe not even middle school, actually.

A cycle of relapses would follow over many years.  Pleas for forgiveness would continually be asked of me by people who did not understand (or did not want to understand) the truth of the matter, which was that there was nothing to forgive.  Her illness could not be converted into a mistake which could then be fixed.  It was something we all needed to accept as serious and permanent, and then deal with.  This was my sister.  This was who she had become.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill of Depression

Co-Pilot in Germanwings Crash Hid Medical Condition From Employer, Prosecutors Say,
New York Times, March 27, 2015

Some truths are really hard to accept.

It's the Trolley problem: a pilot with a passion for flying, whose fragile happiness in great part relies on his success as a pilot. As someone with access to his confidential records, do you disqualify him from flying based on one or two documented instances of diagnosed depression, which were possibly few and far between? Would you deprive him a source of happiness and possibly send him into an even greater depression by doing do? It is a gamble. What if you knew he would be flying your family members somewhere? Is the two-person rule in the cockpit a sufficient solution? Do we draw a harsh line to save 150 people, or blur the line to preserve compassion for the human condition?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

More Help, Less Prison

I caught the NYT headline in my inbox this morning as I was deleting days of spam, and was instantly awash in a polarizing mixture of forlorn skepticism and exuberant optimism:

New York City Plans Focus on Mental Health in Justice System

The actual article -- at least what it planned and promised -- was pretty amazing, considering that years ago, I had abandoned all hope that what I perceived as slow-moving weight-pushing CYA-minded bureaucrats would actually support and produce something so insightful, smart and caring.
But behold, this is where it's at.  If the city can successfully implement and integrate this into our public health services, we can fill that awful gap that was left half a century ago, when the city gave up on mental health altogether; when they decided it was better for those of us suffering from mental instability to migrate from institutions to prisons, under the guise of civil rights. Let's put an end to criminalization of mental illness and stop breeding mentally ill criminals through the currently acceptable practice of revolving door treatment, both in prisons and hospitals.
About a month ago, my friend was riding the subway home mid-afternoon with her two young children, when a disheveled woman came barreling into her car and began to assault her while my friend wrapped her arms around her children to protect them. To me, that is the byproduct of our current system - a negligent one - that has been turning a blind eye to the inherent dangers of delayed treatment and recurring psychotic episodes.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Not Giving a F*ck at 40

Oh My, Look at the Time! Am I 40 Already?

I was 28 years old, sitting at a table of about 15 people, celebrating a work colleague's 40th birthday.   I think we may have been at Tao, although in those days work lunches on the company's tab were so frequent that all the midtown hot spots from that period are now a giant blur to me.  Someone asked the question, "So, how does it feel to be 40?"  After a brief pause, the guest of honor replied that it felt awesome because, "you just don't give a f*ck anymore, like the way you do when you're 26."  Her remark was accompanied by a quick unkind glance at the horrid row of us, the twentysomethings.  A lovely thirtysomething woman took it upon herself to cut off at the chase what could have become painfully awkward silence, by asking without judgment, "well, who here is 26?"  One by one, we twentysomethings stated our ages, each of us individually relieved once we had revealed that we had just missed the bitter birthday woman's bullet by at least a year.  Nevertheless, we knew what she was trying to say; that she had given up on life, and that we who still cared should not feel so great about ourselves just because we hadn't.

The take-away for me that day was this: I will absolutely not be bitter at 40 because, well, bitter at 40 looked really awful.

So here I am, at 40.  I made it, and my goal is met.  How did I do it?  Every day, I make sure that the life that surrounds me is one driven by love and beauty.  I choose love and beauty over money, and I choose love and beauty over obligation.  I check for love and beauty beneath the façades of images of love and beauty.  I know that love and beauty cannot be found in self-centeredness, ignorance or neglect.  Love and beauty are found in mutually enriching connections.  They are consequences of selfless desires to breathe life into shared spaces.  Love and beauty are catalysts for growth; without growth, there is no love, no beauty.

And why do I think it is acceptable for me to be preaching about love and beauty with such insufferable profundity?  Because now I am 40, and I just don't give a f*ck anymore.