Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Thread of Life

Giving weaves our threads into a tapestry

This year’s carol was one I started last year but couldn’t finish. I awoke Christmas morning of 2012 to a lump of unimaginable coal: the news that my time with my younger two children would be severely limited for a while. At first, I thought a week, maybe two. Then weeks stretched into months. Finally, almost a year later, I got the best present imaginable: reunification of my family. As I write these words, I hear merry voices laughing upstairs, playing the new Toy Story version of Disney Infinity that some guy in a red suit left under our tree this morning.

Back to the carol. (And apologies for how soft it is! Since I only do this once a year and technology changes so quickly, every year is another crash course in Video Production 101).

It's the latest entry in a decade-plus string of annual musical essays. I feel a kinship to Christina Rossetti, the Victorian poet whose lyrics explore the relationship between human and divine.  The lyrics are taken from Rossetti's three-sonnet sequence “The Thread of Life,” published in 1895, a year after her death. That title surely alludes to the classical Moirae, the three fates who spin, measure, and cut the thread that controls us. Yet Rossetti asserts that she herself controls her destiny: myself is that one only thing/I hold to use or waste, to keep or give.” And as she does in her more famous poem, “In the bleak midwinter,” (a famous carol which I have also set to my own tune), she decides in "The Thread of Life" to give herself (as king) to her King.

The poem is also about solitude, the infinitesimal and infinite space that separates self from other. As I was working out the carol's dissonant harmonies this morning, I heard Adam Frank’s thought-provoking commentary “The Christmas Now: How to Be The Center of the Universe,”  Frank's words struck me with awe:
The simple physical fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light means all of us — every man, woman and child — share the same predicament. We are all profoundly separated and yet deeply connected at the same time.” 
I think this is exactly the point Rossetti was trying to make in her poem more than 100 years ago, before we knew anything about the speed of light. And I’ve used the dissonance of major seconds to convey that all-too-human predicament, as well as postponing the longed-for resolution to the chord until the very end. The piece starts in E minor and ends, at last, in G major. Because you know what? That’s pretty much how I felt about this past year. (E minor is a nice key to be from; G major is a nice key to be in).

So how can we express our connection to each other? How can we overcome the aloofness that necessarily characterizes the human condition? Well, for starters, on Christmas Day, we can give.

Scads of studies show that giving and gratitude are the secrets to happiness. We saw that joy this season with #TipsforJesus. One study found that even children as young as two years old feel happier when they give treats to others. 

What are you giving this year? As 2013 draws to a close, I urge each of you to consider what you value most, then give something right now--money, time, love. I plan to donate to  to support research and treatment for children who have mental illness. I also support the anti-stigma organization Bring Change 2 Mind  because when I felt truly alone last year, this organization helped me to find my voice. And I'm supporting Clarity Child Guidance Center because they represent real hope for children and families struggling with mental illness. Of course, I donated to NPR because it makes me feel smarter. And finally, I'm giving time to TeachIdaho, an organization that helps teachers to create communities of learners.

Though we are all individual threads of life, the tapestry we weave with others as we give is what creates meaning and purpose from solitude. Wishing you the joy of giving this Christmas season! 

Monday, December 16, 2013

I Am Not Adam Lanza's Mother

Now that we’ve talked about mental illness, when will it be time to act? 
Photo by Charles Mims, October 2013
Republished from The Blue Review, December 15, 2013 

On the morning of December 14, 2012 I closed the door to my office and started to cry as the news of a tragic school shooting in Connecticut blew up my Facebook and Twitter feed. My then 13-year old son “Michael” had been in Intermountain Hospital for two days, placed there against his will after an inexplicable and violent episode of rage he couldn’t remember. After years of struggles, we still didn’t know what was wrong, or how to help him. I was exhausted, sad and afraid. The isolation of living with a child who had a serious, undiagnosed mental illness made me feel like there was no hope for me or my family. 

That night, I sat down and wrote my truth. I told about the years of missed diagnoses, medications that didn’t work, costly therapies. I wrote about my worst fears for my son’s future. And as a national tragedy beyond comprehension intersected with my personal sorrow, I called for a conversation about mental health. My cry for help, which I published on my formerly anonymous blog, “The Anarchist Soccer Mom,” was picked up by The Blue Review and republished under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The essay was shared everywhere. Many people wrote me to say, “You told my story! I am Adam Lanza’s mother too!” But a few excoriated me for talking openly about my son’s struggles with mental illness. 

One year after the Newtown tragedy, where has that conversation about mental health led us as a nation? The official report about the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School could be summarized in five words: no answers, lots of guns. Lanza’s mental illness was certainly a factor. As the report notes, “the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close.” Like his mother. 

As the one year anniversary of the shooting approached, with yet another school shooting in the news, policy makers were paying more attention to mental health. After meeting with the families of the Sandy Hook victims this week, Vice President Joe Biden, whose initial response to the tragedy was to push for tighter gun control, announced a $100 million increase in funding to help people access mental health services. Half of the money will come from the Affordable Care Act; the other half has been pledged for rural mental health care, which should be welcome news in states like Idaho. 

Lots of things have been promised. For example, when the state mental hospitals closed, we were promised community based care. That never happened. The fact is that in December 2013, one year after Newtown, if you or a loved one is in crisis, you still have to call the police. And we continue to use prisons as the new institution to treat our adults and children who have mental illness. 

In the past year, I have slowly found my voice as an advocate for children’s mental health. I haven’t done it alone — my son has joined me in calling for an end to stigma, by bravely speaking out about his condition on Nova and in a StoryCorps interview. We were honored to share an award for family advocacy from the Idaho Federation of Families, which my son placed prominently on our piano. 

Where is my family a year later? I’ve had quite a bit of time to think about what I wrote. And I can’t sugar coat it: the consequences of my decision to put my name on my story were devastating to us personally, as we learned firsthand just how harsh the stigma of mental illness can be. 

Yet there were also rewards. I researched and wrote a book, The Price of Silence. The book will be released by Hudson Street Press in the fall of 2014.which explores stigma and other barriers to mental health care for children and families as they try to navigate the healthcare system, public schools and the criminal justice system. I also had the opportunity to speak at TEDx San Antonio, where I asked the audience why we never see a picture of a child with mental illness in a grocery store checkout line. 

My family has also found some answers. Michael now has a diagnosis — bipolar disorder — and medication that works. I can’t tell you how much this has changed our lives for the better. A year ago, I had almost no hope for my son. Now, we are talking about where he will go to college (he says Harvard or Oxford, but he’s going to have to bring his math grade up just a little bit). 

Above all, I’ve learned this year that I am most emphatically not Adam Lanza’s mother. While I still feel a great deal of empathy for Nancy Lanza, who surely loved her son as I love mine, we are different in two important ways. First, by acknowledging the seriousness of my son’s condition, I am empowered to do everything I can to ensure he gets the treatment he needs. 

Second, I don’t own guns, and I never will. 

Some have speculated that perhaps guns were a way for Nancy Lanza to connect with her son. My son and I share some common interests too: writing, history and Greek mythology. As far as I know, a love of history never killed anyone. 

Still, I believe that in the futile search for answers, too many people continue to blame Adam Lanza’s mother, the first victim of the tragedy in Newtown. Emily Miller of the Washington Times is representative of that view. As she explained in her Op Ed piece that followed the release of the official Sandy Hook report:
"In the end, we can’t blame lax gun-control laws, access to mental health treatment, prescription drugs or video games for Lanza’s terrible killing spree. We can point to a mother who should have been more aware of how sick her son had become and forced treatment.”
If only it were that easy. Instead, numerous barriers still exist for children and families who need access to mental health care. In 1999, NAMI published a report called “Families on the Brink: The Impact of Ignoring Children with Serious Mental Illness.” That report addressed school shootings in the wake of Columbine:
"As we struggle to make the lives of all our children better in the wake of unthinkable school violence, we must not forget our children who have serious mental illnesses and their families who love them.”
On December 14, 2012, more than ten years later, we watched again in horror as we witnessed exactly how devastating that impact of untreated mental illness could be to a community — and very little if anything had changed for children and families who needed help. 

If 2013 was the year to talk about mental illness, let’s hope that 2014 is finally the year to act. 

Watch my interview with Marcia Franklin on Idaho Public Television’s “Dialogue,” December 13, 2013.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

No Answers

Why we need first aid kits for physical and mental health

On the first Wednesday of December, I had big plans for my children. There’s something about this past year—the stress, the anxiety, the uncertainty—that has made me nostalgic for Christmas in a way I haven’t been for a long time. I gave up on physical Christmas cards years ago, opting for email ostensibly because I wanted to be green, but really because I was just lazy. And even an artificial tree is usually too much work.

But this year, I wanted real Christmas cards, real homemade sugar cookies and creamy fudge and steaming mugs of frothy cocoa, and a real, fragrant, noble pine tree.

Wednesdays are important days for me. Since my blog about my son with mental illness went viral in December 2012, four hours after school and every other weekend have been my only times to be with my younger two children. When you have to cram a whole week’s worth of love into four hours, every minute, every second counts. And this first Wednesday in December, I wanted to create perfect Christmas memories.

In hindsight, I should have listened to my daughter. She wanted the smallest tree, but her brothers talked me into a bigger one, perhaps too large for our two-bedroom town-home. We lashed the tree with twine to the top of the car, and I made my way home with an excess of caution, annoying the drivers behind me as the kids and I hollered out Christmas carols at twenty miles per hour.

“Let’s saw off the end of the tree so it can hydrate,” I told my 16-year old son when we got home. We hunted for the saw, an old dull one, and he began to work in earnest on the trunk. It was knotty. I held the tree firmly between my knees as he sawed. “Be careful,” I warned.

Too late. In one instant, the saw glanced off a knot, gauged into his finger. He cried out and ran into the house to apply pressure while I hauled out the first aid kit. As we wrapped his throbbing, bloody finger in gauze, it was clear that we needed to get medical attention right away. My mind raced—I thought of my son’s piano playing, his dream of becoming a surgeon. Could one freak Christmas tree accident ruin everything?

“Come on, guys,” I called to the others. “Change of plans.”

We piled into the car and drove around the corner to the Doc in a Box, where we are on a first name basis with the staff.

More than two hours (and nine stitches) later, it was time to take the younger children back to their Dad’s house. No cookies, no fudge, no cocoa. No decorating the tree, which lay forlornly on its side, shedding needles all over the carpet.

“Mom,” my 14-year old son said when I got home. “I think it would be a good idea if you did all the sawing from now on. It was really inconvenient to have X cut his finger like that, right during our time with the kiddos.”

(Thank you, son, for stating the obvious).

My son sliced his finger just a few days after the Connecticut State Attorney released the report about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School last year. And that report has been on my mind. The verdict? No answers. Lots of legally purchased guns. And a young man with a long history of mental illness.

From the report:
"The obvious question that remains is: “Why did the shooter murder twenty-seven people, including twenty children?” Unfortunately, that question may never be answered conclusively, despite the collection of extensive background information on the shooter through a multitude of interviews and other sources…. It is known that the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close. As an adult he did not recognize or help himself deal with those issues."
No answers. It’s the hardest thing about life, isn’t it? When something bad, worse, or truly horrible happens, we want answers. We want accountability. Maybe we even want revenge.

At the very least, we crave simple cause and effect. We want fairness, and we want life to make sense.

But it doesn’t. It just doesn’t.

After my son cut his finger, my friends tried to make light of it. “Anyone can have cookies and cocoa,” one joked. “How many people get stitches for Christmas? That’s the way to make lasting memories!”

I'd still prefer the other, more conventional memories. For me, the accident was a reminder that sometimes bad things happen, and those things are beyond our control. In fact, all too often, all we can control is our reaction to the event.  We can choose to hate. Or we can choose to forgive.

What have we, as a society, done since Sandy Hook to help people with “significant mental health issues,” people like Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, Seung Hui Cho, James Holmes, Aaron Alexis, Gus Deeds? In my essay last year, I said that it was time to talk about mental illness, and it was.

It’s still time to talk. And it’s definitely past time to stop blaming the mothers, a memo I’d like to send to Emily Miller, senior opinion editor of the Washington Post, who apparently still thinks that’s the solution: 
"In the end, we can’t blame lax gun-control laws, access to mental health treatment, prescription drugs or video games for Lanza’s terrible killing spree. We can point to a mother who should have been more aware of how sick her son had become and forced treatment.”
But Adam Lanza was 20 years old. Even if his mother had recognized that his insistence on communicating solely through email was a little off, Nancy Lanza would have had a potentially uphill fight to force treatment for her adult son, as Pete Earley and others have noted. The fact is that the whole system is broken, and tragedies like Newtown are inevitable until we start to make real changes in how we view and treat mental illness.

In a pointed call for action nearly one year after the Newtown tragedy, Linda Rosenburg, CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, recommended a practical, real-world solution: Mental Health First Aid training for everyone, so that we all can recognize the early signs and symptoms of mental illness and intervene before it’s too late. 
“Mental Health First Aid makes it OK to have the difficult conversations — it helps people open up and talk with family, friends, and coworkers. It ends the isolation and offers a path out of the despair,” Rosenburg wrote. 
Mental health first aid might be just what we need. When my son cut his finger, we grabbed the first aid kit. Then we called the doctor and got him the care that he needed. In a few more days, he will play Christmas carols with a healthy finger.

It’s about time we had the same solutions for mental health. Enough talk. It’s time to act.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Choose Your (Fighting) Words

Or better yet, shut up and buy me a latte

I have a confession to make. Social media exhausts me. I was an early adopter—I joined Facebook in 2007, without really thinking about the implications of this new technology. Really, I just wanted a place to play online Scrabble with my siblings and post pictures of my adorable progeny. But early on, I made a critical decision about “friending” that would prove to be surprisingly intuitive. I decided that—with very few exceptions—I would only friend people in this virtual space whom I actually knew and trusted in the real world.

Because you know what? I have enough drama in my real-world life. I don’t need Facebook drama.

When my blog about my son with mental illness went viral last year, I was especially glad I had made that decision. The Internet can be a decidedly unfriendly place. But my Facebook friends supported me, virtually and on ground, as my family struggled to find treatment for my son.

I’m extremely fortunate to have a diverse and thoughtful group of friends. Some of my friends are atheists, some are Mormons, some are Catholics, some are Unitarians, some wear colanders on their heads and pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Many are liberal Democrats. And many are stalwart Republicans. But the one characteristic I admire above all else in my friends is their kindness.

I occasionally post provocative things on my page, because I’ll admit it: I love a good debate! And my smart, informed friends are usually not shy about sharing their opinions. But the one thing that everyone seems to get is the unspoken Golden Rule of online discussions. We can criticize or disagree with anyone’s ideas. But we don’t attack people on my Facebook page.

What does a personal attack look like? Well, it often takes the form of a so-called “you statement,” in which someone feels the need to tell you all of the things that you are doing wrong, because hey! That kind of message is bound to get you to change, right?

Recently, someone who I truly believed was a longtime real friend sent me this “you statement” riddled message explaining his decision to “unfriend” me on Facebook.
I am also sorry for the bitterness you have for people. You told me once that you have not gone into the dark area of you. I am here to say that you are have gone there. Your constant attack on the Mormons church and the people, has proved this to me. You have become a person that I was 35 years ago. A person that I have fought to leave to in my past. You can justify your feelings and actions anyway and however you want. I know I did. However, I now choose how I feel and what I feel. But you are no better than the Mormons you criticize, make comments about and put down. You behave as smug and judgmental as those you are angry at. You have the right to say and to post anything you want, when you want and you want. As do I and anyone else. However, I do not support the spreading of hate. I will not listen to your hate, demeaning or attacking of anyone. Therefore, I will un friend you from my facebook. (sicut, you emphasis added)
The first thing I am going to say about this is, yep! It hurt! I trusted this person. I don’t really care that he unfriended me—that happens all the time. It’s the way he did it, lots of “you statements” and maximum drama. To me, it seems like he wanted to make sure I knew that it was all my fault.

Because ????

At this point, we should all be reminded of Jessica Wakeman’s excellent blog post  on Facebook unfriending netiquette: 
“1. Disappear as subtly and quietly as possible. Don’t email the person to explain why you’re unfollowing. Don’t tweet or Facebook or write on Tumblr or post an interpretive dance on Vine about why you’re unfollowing. Don’t call the person up on the phone and verbally explain why you’re unfollowing. Why? Because assuming a person needs to be informed exactly why you’re unfriending them is self-absorbed and definitely begging for drama.”
Amen. To my “friend,” a) don’t let the virtual door hit you on the way out; and b) don’t expect to come back into my circle of real friends either.

And if you really want to stop the spreading of hate, my suggestion is to go for a random act of kindness rather than a targeted act of cruelty. Do what the woman in front of me at Dutch Bros did this morning—buy the person behind you a latte. That simple kindness from a total stranger moved me to tears. Oh, never mind! You’re Mormon, so you can’t buy coffee… (smiley face filled with hate).

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Trollegitimi non carborundum

A simple cure for trolls: crack an egg on their heads!
Trolls offer simple, wrong solutions to painful, complex problems

One of the most astonishing benefits of the Internet is that it has made us all instant experts about other people’s lives.  We can skim a Facebook status update and immediately diagnose the obvious causes of and solutions to a child’s mental illness, where trained therapists and psychiatrists have tried for months or years to provide answers.  In fact, some of us are such “experts” that we just can’t quit posting—we have to argue our point until it is dead, buried, and reincarnated as a three-toed sloth somewhere in Madagascar. Then we have to hunt down the sloth, kill it again, bury it, and…

The Internet community has a name for people like this: trolls

I’m not exactly sure where this term comes from. Is it because they lurk under blog posts, coming out to challenge any viewpoint that disagrees with their own? Or is it just because they are really ugly, mean people? Or some combination?

I have a theory. I don’t think that trolls are actually mean people. I think if a troll were standing behind me in the grocery store checkout line, s/he would be perfectly pleasant. We would probably talk about the weather, because that’s just what people tend to talk about when they are not on the Internet pummeling people with their brilliance (in ALL CAPS, of course).

Trolls are especially good at diagnosing the simple, unambiguous cause of my child’s mental illness. It's definitely one of these:
  • No father/stepfather/male role model in the home.  
  • Violent video games.
  •  Red Vines/vaccinations/gluten/casein/soy protein/no soy protein (etc.)
  • Demons
  • Me (bad parent, poor prenatal care, not enough discipline, too much discipline, etc.)
  • My child (willful, disobedient, etc.)
Trolls offer equally simple proposed solutions:
  • Find a new dad for my kids (aside: could someone make a Disney movie about this one please? Because I would really love to see the Disney movie where Dwayne Johnson comes into the single mother’s life and rescues her kid—oh wait, that was Journey 2: The Mysterious Island  and it was like my FAVORITE MOVIE EVER!)
  •  Only let my teenage sons play games based on “MyLittle Pony.
  • Dietary supplements. Lots of expensive dietary supplements.
  • An exorcism (when I told my priest about this, he looked at me and laughed).
  • Crack a raw egg on my kid’s head.
Yeah. I’m actually not going to do any of those things (though the supplements are tempting, so tempting! Also, the egg, but mostly because that seems like it would be kind of funny.)

But I am also not going to criticize anyone who claims that any (or all) of these solutions has worked for their child. Because you know what? We all want something that works for our kids.

And that, to my mind, is the place where many of those mental illness trolls come from. They’ve found a “simple” solution that works for them—so they assume that it will work for me. They want to help me, to educate me, to enlighten me, in ALL CAPS. Why would I give my kid a Zyprexa when I could have him on a gluten-free diet instead? (Zyprexa is a nasty drug, by the way. I’m not even going to attempt to argue otherwise. But sometimes there are worse evils).

I’ve found H.L. Mencken’s oft-quoted bon mot to be more indicative of my actual experience with my own son:  “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong.

In too many cases, that “well-known” solution continues to be mother-blame. I recently posted a portion of a tragic email I received from a desperate mother in Colorado. This is some of what she wrote (reprinted with her permission and in her exact words):
My 9 year old son has a mood disorder with severe anger problems and after 3 hospitalizations for hurting himself and other people, being kicked out of schools, after school programs and summer programs, I finally asked social services for help. Social services placed him in a residential facility, but in order for that to happen; I had to give up partial parental rights. Meetings were set up with social services, GAL, residential therapist and me to come up with a safety plan for my son to return home. After my son failed the first step in the safety plan, the group still pushed him to come home, but I denied him to return home for safety reasons.

Within a few months I received paperwork in the mail that the GAL placed a motion for me to lose my parental rights stating that I was an unfit parent and that I abandoned and neglected my son. The GAL felt that my son was institutionalized and he needed a loving home for him to get better. The court dd side with the GAL and my parental rights were taken and so was my son. It has been 6 months since I’ve seen or talked to him; my family is able to see him, but I am not allowed to and social services are holding all my gifts, letters and cards until he is stable. A foster family did come along, but within 4 weeks, they told social services that he will not work out for them because of him being unsafe. I feel that I am being abused by the system and being punished for advocating for my mentally ill son. I feel that I am not the only mother going through this.
Most people had the same reaction I did to this story—horror and sadness for the mother. But one sincere and well-meaning gentleman had to make the point—again and again—that the state could not possibly take this woman’s child from her unless she was an unfit mother. Which meant that she was probably a single mother. Because everybody knows that single mothers are the cause of boys’ mental illness. Etc.

The thing is, this mom’s story does NOT imply in any way that she was a bad mother—in fact, her attempts to get help for her son in the face of overwhelming odds show that she is a good mother. It’s the system, to my mind, that is at fault here. Why would the state terminate her parental rights? Why would they try to place her child in foster care, rather than working with her and providing access to resources?

Why indeed. I encourage everyone who does not realize how common this mom’s heartbreaking story is to become acquainted with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Here is what the Bazelon Center has to say on the subject of relinquishing custody
Parents forced to make this devastating choice are victims of an irrational and wholly inadequate system of insurance coverage. Employer-based health insurance may cover outpatient therapy and acute hospital care, but the intensive community-based services (such as wraparound services) required by many children with serious disorders are typically beyond the reach of private insurance. As a consequence, working families who cannot pay out of pocket for such services must forego essential care for their child, often with dire consequences, or relinquish custody to the state so that the child will become eligible for public insurance, typically Medicaid. 
Parents are asked to give up their rights because the state wants the money that attaches to a child who has mental illness. There it is. That answer is not as simple as blaming the mother. But it makes a whole lot more sense, if you stop and think about it before hitting “post.”

And that’s what I’m asking here, troll-folks. Let’s all stop to think, just for a minute, before making a potentially hateful and hurtful comment about an issue that might be more complex than it appears at first glance.  Apology accepted. 

P.S. The "clever" title is not my own--the inimitable Xeni Jardin from BoingBoing tweeted it a while back. Loosely translated, it means "don't let the troll bastards get you down." Words to live by.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fabric Scraps and Old Wounds

What Joni Hilton’s “Are You a Liberal Mormon?” meant to me

On Saturday, sequestered by November’s first snowfall, the kids and I decided to clean out the closets, donating bags of clothes that don’t fit, old toys we no longer play with, and my fabric stash.

Parting with the last of my fabric was harder than I thought it would be—much harder, in fact, than selling the few pieces of gold jewelry my ex-husband gave me during our 13 years of marriage. I’ve shed fabric a few pieces at a time in the six years since The Divorce (the children still refer to it in capital letters, acknowledging the post-apocalyptic wasteland that remained in the aftermath of our temple marriage’s sudden and unexpected dissolution).

These last three bins represented my most cherished finds—colorful satin brocades, plush, luxurious Minky, quirky calico prints, and finally, the pink chenille I once lined with toile flannel and made into a couture outfit for my much-wanted and much-loved baby girl.

How I loved to sew in those days of young Mormon motherhood! I made train quilts and book bags and matching pajamas for the boys, documenting everything in carefully planned scrapbooks. But having a daughter took my sewing to a whole new level. I dreamed up outfits for her in my sleep, bought a serger, and spent many happy afternoons creating my masterpieces.

After The Divorce, I had no time for sewing. But I kept the fabric because of what it represented, a life I had lost but still sometimes longed for.

Last summer, my little pink chenille-robed pixie turned eight, and I pulled out the sewing machine once more, to fulfill a promise I made to her and to myself. We went to the fabric store where she picked out a pattern, white satin, and gold-leafed chenille for her baptism dress.

I was out of practice, and the dress, with its slippery fabric, gave me fits. Unable to put the zipper in, I conceded partial defeat and modified the design for buttons. I cut myself more than once and bled spots of bright red blood onto the white fabric.

And I cried as I stitched the seams together. Because the truth is this: I did not want my daughter to get baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While I still consider myself culturally Mormon, I no longer identify with the church’s teachings, and I fear that they can be especially toxic for bright young girls.

But baptism is what my daughter wanted (and no eight year-old should face the sort of social stigma she would endure if she didn’t).

Many brilliant Mormon and post-Mormon bloggers have done a better job than I could of articulating my own existential angst at the thought of my daughter’s baptismal covenants. Sitting behind her (I was not permitted to sit beside her) was one of the most agonizing moments of my entire life. Talk about NOT feeling the Spirit! Still, I smiled through the ceremony, shook hands, and got through the day. Because that’s just what you do, and it wasn’t about me anyway.

But I didn’t realize how truly bothered I was by the whole baptism pageant until I read Joni Hilton’s essay, “Are You a Liberal Mormon?” I know it’s so two weeks ago, but Ms. Hilton is still on my mind, because you know what? She is exactly like many of the Mormons I know—smug, self-righteous, and “perfect.”

If not staggering out of bars at 2:00 a.m. makes you perfect. Because that is apparently what “liberal Mormons” do (?????). Ms. Hilton’s essay was quickly taken down, probably because even the editors of Meridian Magazine had to realize how toxic it was. In case you somehow missed it, you can read Mormon Stories’ excellent coverage of the debacle here

This quote really stood out for me: “Liberal Mormons have forgotten that Christ runs this church, not mortals. God’s laws are uncheangeable [sic] and eternal, not somebody’s notions that sway in the breeze and adapt to each new social trend.”

Except they aren’t. Many Mormons I know manage the dizzying act of being both relativists and absolutists simultaneously. Blacks and women can’t hold the Priesthood, only now blacks can because in 1978, God changed his mind. Gay people can’t get married because God said they can’t, but God also used to say it was okay to have several wives, and now that’s just not okay.

These are not unique insights, by the way—these are glaringly evident examples of God changing his mind gleaned straight from sanitized LDS church history.  

One of the attractions of Mormonism has been the image and lifestyle that people like Ms. Hilton represent—clean-living, wholesome, nuclear families with hard-working, shirt-and-tie fathers, even harder working stay-at-home mothers, and a slew of bright, polite, successful children. I want to make it very clear that I am not criticizing that lifestyle. It works well for many people.

What I am criticizing is something I used to do myself as a temple going, faithful Mormon mother: Mormons have got to stop judging the latte drinkers.

You know what I mean. Jesus, if there is a Jesus, does not give a damn about whether somebody drinks coffee or not. He just doesn’t. This is a God whose first miracle was to change water to wine. When I was in Mormon Sunday School, the lesson focused obsessively on explaining that the “wine” in question was actually nonalcoholic grape juice. Now that I’ve enjoyed a glass or two of cabernet sauvignon for myself, I have to say that I very much doubt this. No one would be impressed by a god who changed water to grape juice.

Closet cleaning accomplished, my Saturday turned to a much anticipated interfaith choir concert hosted by my parish and organized by a local LDS stake music director. I had the opportunity to catch up with many of my LDS friends as we shared worship music. The concert featured several local church groups, with a finale sung by a 100-member chorus. My friends embraced me; we caught up on their children’s missions and college plans. I felt loved and included and best of all, not judged.

The LDS church is at a crossroads. Its branded lifestyle, the so-called traditional family as described in the Church’s document The Family: A Proclamation tothe World, is increasingly rare, for a variety of reasons. Yet people like Ms. Hilton cling to their own notions of righteousness, categories that exclude and hurt people both within (the “Liberal Mormons”) and outside of their faith.

I’m not sure about many things, but I am pretty sure that’s not what Jesus would do. Jesus would have an interfaith choir concert followed by a community potluck every single night of the week. And all—Mormons, Christians, Atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Pastafarians—would be welcome at the table.

P.S. If you live in the Boise area and want some pretty awesome fabric, I donated my stash to the Goodwill on State Street. I hope your daughter looks as fabulous in your creation as my daughter did in mine.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Write Your Truth

How to make your blog go viral in three easy steps

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to do something I had secretly wanted to do for a long time. No, I’m not talking about skinny dipping at a secret Idaho hot spring (though it’s possible I did that too). I was invited to speak to an audience of talented writers at Elaine Ambrose’s annual “Write by the River” retreat in Garden Valley, an event which has previously hosted literary luminaries Alan Heathcock, Tony Doerr, Jennifer Basye Sanders (one of my short stories appears in her Miracle under the Christmas Tree collection), A.K. Turner, Gretchen Anderson, Stacy DymalskiDoug Copsey,and of course, the inimitable author of Midlife Cabernet, Ms. Ambrose herself.

I’m sure I’m missing someone here, and please forgive me. Boise has a lot of world-class writers on first-name bases. We’re kind of like Iowa, only our writers’ workshops are supportive and polite in the “constructive feedback” process. Also, we have lots of brew pubs.

The lineup for this season’s blogging-themed retreat was intimidating. Stephanie Worrell, PR maven and founder of Red Sky, kicked off the show with a 42 page comprehensive guide to writing, producing, and starring in Your Blog. Stephanie was followed by writer Ken Rodgers, who independently produced (with his talented wife Betty) a moving documentary about the siege of Khe Sanh called Bravo: Common Men, Uncommon Valor. Then there was The Anarchist Soccer Mom. I described how to get yourself a publicist and hide under a rock when your blog about a controversial topic—your son who has mental illness, for example—goes viral.

I can’t really tell you how to make your blog go viral, by the way. As for handling the media, well, let’s just say that I didn’t even know who Anderson Cooper was until my friends told me. I haven’t had commercially broadcast television since 2002. But I learned this: stick to your message. You don’t have to defend yourself for saying something that needed to be said!

I can tell you this: we live in an age, as former Vice President Al Gore has said, when a single blogger can influence the course of a national conversation.

What does that mean for you? It means that you had better write your truth as well as you can, each and every time you Tweet, post on Facebook, or compose something for your blog. Because you just never know when something you say will change the world.

Blogger Arlee Bird has been exploring the topic of blogs as an essential part of every writer’s platform in a recent series of posts on  Tossing It Out. He had this to say about “making” a blog go viral: “In answer to the question "Did your blog post go viral?", the answer is no.  Nor did I expect my Monday post to go viral.  The content for virality wasn't there [emphasis added].”

I don’t personally think any one of us has the power to “make” a blog go viral. But Arlee has hit on the writer’s main job: provide meaningful content. As I learned with my viral essay about my son with mental illness, which was picked up by The Blue Review and Huffington Post under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” one of the most meaningful consequences of sharing our truths, even when our stories are painful, is that we can actually change the world. I mean, I spoke at a TEDx event in San Antonio last week with some of the coolest people I will ever meet in my life! I never could have imagined that kind of platform for my mental health advocacy. But it happened (and yet just days later, so did another tragic school shooting). 

So with this post, I’m officially adding my name to my blog. Yes, I’m THAT mom, the one who shared a story that made some of you wince and many of you cry. I started blogging in 2008. I’m a lazy blogger, posting whenever I feel like it—no content schedules for me. And I write about whatever I want to, from yoga to kids to grammar lessons to thrift store wedding dresses (Little White Dress, a collection of essays and poems I edited, was conceived from that 2011 blog post). 

Arlee interviewed me recently about my viral blog post and its effect on me as a writer. You can read my answers to Arlee’s interview questions about viral blogs here.  The advice I gave both to Arlee and to the would-be viral bloggers at Elaine’s retreat was simple: “Write your truth. Write it well. And accept the consequences.”

It’s that simple. And it's that hard.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

It's Not Rocket Science

Why single mothers don’t have to be fathers

It’s Father’s Day again. Last year on the third Sunday of June, I posted this snarky comment on Facebook: “Since I’m a single mother, does that mean my kids have to make me a cake on Father’s Day?” Lots of people—especially other single moms—thought that sentiment was soooo cute.

This year, I made my sons pancakes.

Here’s the deal. Single mothers cannot be fathers. I’m not just talking about biology. I’m a single mom, raising two teenage boys full time by myself, and in a life of bars set high, it’s bar-none the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. But I’m not both their father and their mother, and I don’t want to be.

Here are ten things single moms can do just as well as fathers:
  1. Make pancakes for your sons on Father’s Day.
  2. Work hard and make barely enough money to pay for the 6.7 gallons of milk your teenage boys drink each week.
  3.  Watch Battlestar Gallactica with your sons.
  4.  Don’t complain when the boys transform the kitchen into a model rocket factory at 1:00 in the morning.  
  5. Say, “No, I will not buy you potassium nitrate at the garden store. I do not believe you when you say that you plan to make sugar with the potassium nitrate. I believe that you plan to use the potassium as rocket fuel accelerant.”
  6. Have that extremely awkward “This is a banana, and this is a condom” talk—early and often.
  7. Make your kids work. You work all day—they can do the dishes and fold the laundry. They can even iron their own shirts.
  8. Don’t buy them every single thing they ask for, and don’t feel guilty about it.
  9. Teach your sons to respect everyone, but especially women. If they respect women, maybe the next generation of children won’t be raised by single mothers.
  10. Love your sons. No matter what.

And here’s one thing single moms can never do just as well as fathers: be your kid’s father.

So stop trying.

Very few (sane) women sign up to be single mothers voluntarily (see #6 above). I certainly was not one of them. I never expected to be celebrating Father’s Day with my sons without their father. This is why the one piece of indispensable knowledge I want to impress on my sons is that if and when they decide to become fathers, they must understand and embrace the life-altering nature of that commitment.  

Children need their fathers. Even when the fathers stop needing—or loving—their partners, fathers should never abandon their children, not for any reason.  As long as single mothers continue to denigrate their vital role as co-parents (the horrible “sperm donor” moniker comes to mind), fathers will have less incentive to take the responsibility that is theirs.

So single-mom girlfriends, you can’t be your children’s father and mother, and you should stop trying to be. But you can be—and you are—their mother. On Father’s Day, let’s celebrate the men we know who have made a difference in their children’s lives, and in our children’s lives as well. I’m thinking of the scoutmaster who patiently worked with my son who has developmental disabilities, or the father of my oldest son’s best friend who takes him along on ski and biking trips, or my partner, who has no children of his own but has graciously made space for my children in his life.

What should a single mother do on Father’s Day? Do something that makes you feel good, of course. Myself, I went for a pedicure with hot pink nail polish. Then I took my boys to see a sci fi movie we all loved. It’s good to be a mother on Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Jenny McCarthy Moment

Do little white pills cause autism spectrum disorders?
Wanting simple answers to complex problems

On a sunny Sunday morning, as I tried to ignore the sad news of the latest mass shooting in Santa Monica (near my former home), I tunneled through the perpendicular worlds of (peer-reviewed, fact-based) and (popular, fear-based). I was researching a drug called terbutaline, also known as brethine, an asthma medication that has long been used off-label to stop contractions in pre-term pregnant women.

In 1999, I was one of those women. And until a few days ago, I had never given terbutaline another thought. But while speaking with another mom of a son with developmental disabilities and mood disorders, my spine chilled and my ears started to ring when she said, “I was hospitalized for pre-term labor and given terbutaline.”

My contractions started after a long hike in my 29th week of Michael’s pregnancy. At first I thought they were just strong Braxton-Hicks, but when they wouldn’t stop, I ended up in the emergency room. I was given an injection, hospitalized for a few days, and sent home on bed rest with a bottle of little white pills.

What I remember most about the pills was the breathtakingly awful headaches and painful tremors they caused. I also remember feeling resentment toward the baby in my body, for making me endure so much pain. In the end, he was born on his due date—and he was the happiest, sweetest baby a mother could ask for.

And now, 13 years later, Michael is still happy and sweet—except when he isn’t. He can’t tie his shoes or remember to brush his teeth. He walks with an awkward gait and has serious sensory integration issues. His most recent diagnoses include PDD-NOS and juvenile bipolar disorder.

Which is where Ms. McCarthy comes in. I have a great deal of sympathy for Jenny McCarthy. Any parent whose child is diagnosed with a life-changing condition, whether it’s cancer or juvenile diabetes or autism, wants to know why. What happened to cause this? Why did this happen to my child?

After her son was diagnosed with autism in 2005, McCarthy famously latched on to a 1998 Lancet study that incorrectly linked autism to vaccinations. That controversial study, which followed 12 children diagnosed with developmental disabilities, has now been retracted; there is no sound scientific evidence linking vaccinations, even those containing thimerosol, to autism.
Even though I have sympathy for McCarthy, I routinely assign the autism/vaccination controversy to my students as a critical thinking exercise in learning how easy it is to latch on to an “easy” but often wrong answer. As that wit H.L.Mencken famously said, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” 

So as I scour Google Scholar for recent articles about terbutaline and autism, I have to ask myself: am I pulling a McCarthy? Do I want this one thing to be the answer, to the exclusion of all other possible things? Do I need an easy answer?

To be fair, the FDA has taken recent studies linking terbutaline to possible developmental delays seriously, issuing a Black Box warning for the drug in 2011: “Terbutaline should not be used to stop or prevent premature labor in pregnant women, especially in women who are not in a hospital. Terbutaline has caused serious side effects in newborns whose mothers took the medication to stop or prevent labor.”

I find myself inevitably drawn to comparisons with Thalidomide, the infamous 1960s drug prescribed off-label for morning sickness that caused thousands of teratogenic birth defects worldwide. Thalidomide was one of the first drugs to provide solid, irrefutable evidence that substances ingested by the mother can cross the placenta and cause harm to the developing fetus. 

If the link between terbutaline and autism is substantiated, then the comparison to thalidomide is an apt one.

In today’s paper, the front page story (right below the Santa Monica shooting) featured a young man headed off to UCLA at the age of 14—a bright, promising chess player with true gifts in math and science.  My son Michael attended the same exclusive magnet school until he was asked to leave because his behavioral problems were too distracting to the other students.

Would that story have been about my son, if only I had refused to take terbutaline?

Simple answers are usually wrong. In the end, the question comes down to a philosophical one: free will or determinism.  Genes, environment, nutrition, medication—all these must certainly play a role in developmental disorders. But they don’t determine the outcome of our lives. Michael still has choices, and good options, which will only improve with ongoing research and changes in society’s current understanding of mental illness and mental disorders.

Thalidomide babies were often born without limbs, or with phocomelia (“Seal limbs”). But that very visible disability didn’t stop Mat Fraser from becoming a drummer, or Tony Melendez from playing the guitar (with his feet), or Thomas Quasthoff from singing his heart out.

Michael’s disability is less visible, but no more deterministic. He too can be what he wants to be. The path just might be longer and more roundabout than I expected that summer morning, when my hike triggered early contractions that set my son’s life—and my life—on this path.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Conformist Football Dad

Why can fathers tell it like it is when mothers can’t?

I miss my anonymous blog. It used to be this fun space where I could vent about the challenges (and occasional joys) of raising four kids as a single mother, juggling(and sometimes dropping) work, school, and mommy balls. When I complained to a friend that I could no longer write whatever I wanted, he suggested I start another anonymous blog and call it (tongue in cheek) “The Conformist Football Dad.”

But I realized something yesterday, when I read Steve Wein’s funny and honest take on parenting small children. If I started a daddy blog, I would not need to keep it anonymous. Because Dads get carte blanche to say pretty much whatever is on their minds. Things like, “You are not a terrible parent if the sound of their voices sometimes makes you want to drink and never stop.” Or “You are not a terrible parent if you'd rather be at work” (There are lots of times I would rather be at work. And look where admitting that got Sheryl Sandberg!).

Instead of the blogosphere ripping Dads up for writing books like Go the Fuck to Sleep, everyone smiles and nods and says, “Isn’t that cute?” (well, a few people were offended, but they probably weren’t parents).

Confession: I wish I had written that book (and I thought of it, while inserting my own occasionally colorful commentary into Goodnight Moon during the roughly 4,745 times I read it in desperation to my own sleep-challenged progeny).

I also wish that I had written Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’m not a big Jane Austen fan—I recommend her work to anyone who has difficulty falling asleep at night. The only one of her books that I ever managed to finish was Mansfield Park, and that’s just because it was the only English language paperback in the bookcase of the Sorrento pensione where I finished out my junior year spring term study abroad. As one of my philosophy professors once said (in jesting reference to the Mormon prophet David O. McKay), “No excess can compensate for failure to go to Rome.”

What McKay actually said was this: “No success can compensate for failure in the home.” No pressure there! And for Mormon mothers, the church’s position on gender roles is clear: “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” 

Yup. And 40 percent of mothers (myself included) are also solely or primarily responsible for putting food on the table.  Which is why it's weird that we keep attacking each other.

I finally got around to reading some of the criticism that followed my December 14, 2012 blog post telling my family’s story about having a child with mental illness. Sarah Kendzior, for example, had a field day mining four years of pretty standard (and anonymous) mommy blog material to create a picture of me as a narcissistic monster who wanted to strangle her kids all the time (Not true. Only when I venture upstairs into the oozing mold pit that is my teenage sons’ bathroom).

But it was one of my favorite writers, End of Men author Hanna Rosin, who really put the mommy boxing gloves on. In her essay, “Don’t Compare your Son to Adam Lanza,”  she suggested, among other things, that I was the one who really had mental problems (I think Ms. Rosin is just envious of my mad writing skillz).  

For the record, I did not compare my son to Adam Lanza. I compared myself to his mother. My point was, and still is, that we as parents of children with mental illness and mental disorders need to speak up.

And it seems like it’s okay to talk about your child with mental illness, or even your own struggles—as long as you are the father and not the mother. David Sheff’s brave and eloquent book about his son’s addiction, for example, or Pete Earley’s Crazy.  But if you write Drunk Mom  watch out!

I’ve gotten more than a few queries from reporters who want to “expose the truth” about what I wrote. They couch their requests for interviews in vaguely threatening terms about “fact-checking” and “privacy.” All of them, interestingly enough, are women.

Hey, girlfriends! Privacy is just another word for stigma.

To be honest, I’m grateful for the backlash. It helped me to clarify my own position and realize the importance of advocacy. That my first attempt to tell my painful truth happened to go viral was something beyond my control. But it has provided me opportunities to meet people, to share stories, and to campaign for change.

So don’t look for the Conformist Football Dad. I’m the Anarchist Soccer Mom, and I’ll keep talking—and acting—to help my son. You can speak up too. And if the other mommies start to beat you up, come out swinging. None of us—dads or moms—are perfect parents. But we all want the same thing: happy, healthy, productive children. Let’s help each other get there.