Monday, December 17, 2012

Sandy Hook and Mental Illness - What Will Change?

Some amazing people died on Friday.  Most of them probably didn't know they were amazing.  They thought they were normal people doing normal things.  They were going through their regular lives and learning what they could.  The children were enjoying the change of the season and the holiday vibes in the air.  The adults were doing much the same, but probably with a slightly more hurried approach.

And then it happened.  Their lives ended and their families lives changed forever.  For most of us, a little something changed too.

Right now we are hearing a lot of political posturing.  Gun laws will be introduced, and viciously fought within the hallowed halls of our government.  Security will be reviewed and changed within our schools.  People will feel a little less secure in the world, but eventually we will heal.

I have also heard a lot about the shooter's mental status and his possible diagnosis.  I have heard rumblings of fear and distrust for those with mental illness.  I have also heard pleas for understanding from families of those with mental illness.

Mental illness is a strange beast.  Unlike other illnesses, society mainly believes that people choose this as an option.  They give advice like "buck up" or "choose to be happy" and expect people to just get better.  People would never tell a diabetic to think happy insulin thoughts, but apparently it is sound advice for those with mental illness.

At the very base, mental illness is the inability to make and/or process the correct chemicals in the brain.  The theories on why this happens are vast, but definitive answers still elude us.  Those who suffer from mental illness do not literally have what it takes to be happy/sad/calm/socially appropriate/(enter adjective here).  They want to be "normal," but often the behaviors associated with these chemical differences make that impossible.

In case you are wondering, mental illness is not a result of bad parenting, a lapse of religious practice, television, video games, low IQ, or lack of love.  It is a medical condition that changes how their bodies make and use specific chemicals to regulate the brain, and the resulting side effects alter mood and behavior.  They didn't do this to themselves, they didn't ask for it, and they certainly can't "snap out of it."

For some reason society looks at mental illness as a personal failing.  I can't imagine society thinking leukemia was a personal flaw, but mental illness is viewed by many as the end result of a weak person unable to learn to be normal.  I'm not sure how we got there, but we did, and now we are suffering the consequences.

Mental illness is a subject I know far too much about.  This is neither the time nor the place for me to list all the things about mental illness I wish I never needed to know, but trust me, the list is long.  For children, there is almost no research and very few answers.  Critics say mental illness in children is just an excuse for parents to medicate away bad parenting choices.  For a few sad cases that may be true, but I can tell you that for the vast majority of parents, treatment and medication of any kind is a decision made only after all other options have been exhausted.

People wonder about this young man who committed such a horrible crime.  They immediately jump to mental illness as the reason.  I will agree that there was some seriously disturbed thinking involved with his choices, but my fear is that we will connect the concept of mental illness to mass murder, when in fact that is a significantly erroneous view.

Are there mentally ill patients who are violent? Of course.  Are there non mentally ill people who are violent?  Of course.  The numbers show that mentally ill people are more often the victims than the perpetrators of violence. For some reason that fact doesn't change the perception. 

Mental illness impacts the lives of millions of people and their families every day.  I bet you would be hard pressed to not think of one person you know who suffers from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, or autism, just to name a few diagnoses. (Before you yell about the last one, there are brain chemistry components to autism as well, so it does fit the definition used here.)  Each of these individuals have families that love them and these disorders impact their lives as well.  This adds up to millions of people suffering.

You can make this better.  If you are young and inclined, you could go into child psychiatry or psychiatric research.  We need caregivers and we need researchers.  If you are wealthy or well connected, you could help start or fund research.  If you are friends with those impacted, you can offer your support and spend the time needed to really be there for them.  If you are a family member, you can speak up and tell people about the disorders your family deals with.  You can make your reality more readily accessible to society.  If you are dealing with mental illness yourself, you can tell your story.  You can share your thoughts and your feelings.  You can give insight into your life and experience.  You can normalize your struggles. 

Sandy Hook is a disaster that has changed us.  What those changes are, and how long will they last still remain to be seen.  As we bandy about theories about mental illness, I suggest we consider one thing, mental illness has been a shameful topic for as long as history has kept records.  It will continue to be shameful as long as we chose to be ashamed.  On behalf of my loved ones who stand up to this challenge every day, I will not be ashamed.

Mental illness is a medical condition and not a commentary on self worth.  I pledge to do my part to find answers, and I pledge to make a difference.

I hope you can do the same.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Motivational Monday #75 - The Truth Doesn't Have to Hurt

I remember my mother telling me that it isn't what you say, but how you say it that matters.  I always wondered about that advice.  I mean, really, some things are bad, no matter how they are framed.  For example, "You are ugly," is no worse than "Um, no, uhhh, I think you look fine."  "Your breath stinks," is no better than, "Wow! You need a mint!" 

Sometimes it doesn't matter how the thought is conveyed, the message is the same..."This isn't going to be nice, but the truth is...."

Many of us are good at sugar coating the truth.  Things like, "That dress is a lovely shade of armadillo gray," or "I am so glad you could spend the last seven hours telling me all about your pet aardvark" are thinly veiled attempts at saying, AAAACK, What was that!?!?!?!

When it comes to telling the flat and blunt truth, many of us are a little squeamish. It feels reprehensible to tell people that we don't value the same things, and isn't that what it is really about?  If we loved aardvarks as much as our friend, those seven hours would have flown right by!

So, in an attempt to be kind, we pretend to value our friend's thoughts/ideas/hobbies/tastes/preferences as much as our own.  And there is the rub.  Is it lying, or is it kindness?

My kids are in the stage where they want my joyous approval of everything they do.  And by everything, I mean everything.  It is a common occurrence in my house to approve hair brushing, toilet flushing, banana mushing.  After a while I am so overwhelmed by rubber stamping the activities going on around me that I want to slap a dumb grin on my face and start giggling to myself.  (Not a good look for me, I might add.)

My rational brain wants to tell them the truth.  I want to tell them that their hair still resembles a rat's nest, that they have to hold the toilet handle all the way down to finish a flush, and that mashed bananas are not really a form of art.  My maternal side tells me to encourage them and be positive.  Have I ever mentioned my maternal side is annoying?

To be blunt, or not to be blunt, that is the question.  Well, actually, it is not the question.  I think the real question is do we think it is fair to crush the happiness of others by flatly imposing our views on them?  Maybe mushed bananas are art.  (For the record, I doubt it, but I could be wrong...)

Telling someone they are ugly is me deciding I know what beauty looks like, and that they don't measure up.  So, they might be beautiful, or they might not be, I'm not really qualified to know.  The same thing goes for most opinion based statements. 

So the next time someone asks you to honestly tell them what you think, remember that your reality is no better than theirs, and you can decide whether or not the truth has to hurt.  Chances are, there are plenty of truths that are kind.  So maybe my mother was right, it's not what you say, but how you say it that matters. Maybe that armadillo gray is just perfect!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Motivational Monday #74 - Sock Monkeys

Today my post will be a little more off the wall than usual.  (See that?  I just admitted my posts are off the wall, and not a single one of you contradicted me...) 

Today I am going to talk about the pros and cons of Sock Monkeys.  I bet you didn't know there are pros and cons, but there are...I promise.

First, a little back story.  This weekend my 'delightful' son was being a punk.  He was arguing, fighting, teasing and being genuinely disagreeable.  In a moment of exasperation I picked up the closest stuffed animal, which just happened to be a Sock Monkey, and declared that I was tired of having a mean child, and was henceforth adopting Sock Monkey as my loving and adorable firstborn.  The look of shock on my son's face was priceless. 

I then proceeded to itemize the virtues of having Sock Monkey be my child.  Here are a few of my favorites.
  1. Sock Monkey never yells at me.
  2. Sock monkey never calls his sister names.
  3. Sock Monkey never tells me the food I made was nasty.
  4. Sock Monkey always sits quietly and waits his turn.
  5. Sock Monkey always listens when others speak.
  6. Sock Monkey never messes up the house.
  7. Sock Monkey never drinks the end of the milk.
  8. Sock Monkey never lies.
  9. Sock Monkey never leaves wet towels on the floor.
  10. Sock Monkey never 'forgets' to do his homework.
Now in all fairness, Sock Monkey also has a few faults.  Namely:
  1. Sock Monkey never says please or thank you.
  2. Sock Monkey never cleans his room.
  3. Sock Monkey never answers when I ask him a question.
  4. Sock Monkey never tells me he enjoyed his meal.
  5. Sock Monkey never takes a shower.
  6. Sock Monkey never brushes his teeth.
  7. Sock Monkey never plans to leave home.
  8. Sock Monkey never practices the piano.
  9. Sock Monkey never feeds the dog.
  10. Sock Monkey never plans to get a job.
So as you can see, adopting Sock Monkey is not without its own set of problems.

My son isn't quite sure if we are serious about replacing him with Sock Monkey or not.  We have him mildly concerned, and the evil mom that I am, I am enjoying it.  In an attempt to be kinder than Sock Monkey, he gave me a compliment which is admittedly something Sock Monkey isn't very good at.

I guess my point is this, everything has two sides, even Sock Monkeys.  We don't always get exactly what we want, and that is true of Sock Monkeys and children.  If we want the cuddly and adorable side, we also have to take the grumpy and whiny side.  Right now I am doing my best to find the good parts of all my kids, including the newly adopted Sock Monkey.  Here's hoping I don't find out the Monkey snores!