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6527212 July 22, 2009

Stabbed 39 Times: An Aberration Story

I refuse to let a scarred situation hold me back from living life.

Last week I went to my 25th high school reunion. Spending time with all my childhood friends taught me a great deal and, once again, got my wheels turning. One of the deepest realizations I had was the extent to which my reality was so distorted back then. It seems like almost everything I thought about the people around me (and about myself) at 16 was either incorrect or off kilter. If only I'd known then ... what might have been different?

Coincidentally, on the flight down to Shreveport, I read American Pastoral by Philip Roth (one of my favorite writers). A particular passage resonated as I mingled with my past and all that it represented to me for years:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive; we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that--well, lucky you.

So what does this have to do with being stabbed 39 times? Nothing and everything. Reading Roth's passage and talking to my old teenage friends as adults reminded me how intricately each of us exists in our own reality. Some of us envision everyone else as having all the qualities, belongings, relationships--lives--we wish we had. Yet we're all just trying to recover from our own unique 39 stabs. As Roth noted, everything we know about each other is wrong, and yet it's still right because life is about constant recovery.

In the novel I just finished writing, there's a passage on how the plight of the mentally sound can sometimes be worse than that of the mentally ill. The ill can submerge beneath it all while those lucky enough to have our wits about us must trudge on, day after day, knowing what we know and seeing what we see, all the while having to keep on keeping on. It can be exhausting. It can squelch the soul and use up the clock.

With all this on my mind, I read Fredric Almond's beautiful story about surviving the death of his mother, and all the stabs he endured as a child. The physical stabs he experienced and survived are about as close as one can find to a representation of hope for us all, despite the type of wound we carry. As I sit here at my computer, facing some new challenges of my own, Fredric's story reminds me of just how resilient, courageous, and beautiful the human spirit truly is. We cannot change the past, whether rooted in reality, fantasy, misconception, ignorance, or despair, but we can certainly refuse to let it hold us back from living, feeling, breathing in today for all we know it to be.

I'll be thrilled one day to look in the face of my maker and finally understand it all, but until then I'll keep getting it wrong over and over again. But according to Roth, that's okay. That's how I'll know I'm still alive.

As a child, you were stabbed 39 times during a burglary. Can you tell us e
xactly what happened?

I was eleven years old when it happened. While I was sleep, I heard my mother screaming. Immediately, I ran in her room and what I never expected happened. It was an intruder in our house with a knife stabbing my mother. I screamed out and he charged at me while swinging the knife. My mother jumped him from behind and he left me alone. Spontaneously, I ran in my closet and began to pray, "Lord I don't want to die, I want to live!" over and over again I prayed the same thing. After a few minutes, I decided to try and get help. So I snuck down the hallway and seen the phone on the floor off the receiver. I picked it up and tried to get a dial tone but couldn't. By the third try of attempting to reset and get a dial tone, the perpetrator noticed me and started stabbing me over and over again until I couldn't move. I was being stabbed like a butcher chopping up meat. I was stabbed about thirty-nine times in the face, back, neck, arm, and foot. He left me there in a pool of my own blood thinking I was dead. The perpetrator went back to my mother and continued to wrestle her down and eventually stabbed her to death. I watched him take my mother's life. She was twice her size after he got finished with her. I could only lay there and watch as if I were dead with my eyes open. He then left the house with the valuables and drove off in my mother's car.

How were you able to initially emotionally cope and physically recover?

I know it was God. I only believed that I would live and I held on to my belief with all that was in me. I refused to allow this situation to win. Yet others may have thought and said that it was impossible for me to recover, I reversed those words as strength; trials are testimonies that give us fuel to move forward. My emotional and physical recovery came in steps. The more I continued to believe I would survive, the more the physical and mental aspect of my injuries healed. At the beginning it was very challenging on me because I had to look in the mirror at the bandages wrapped around my face and the staples on the side of my face to pull my skin back together. I had a tube running down my nose to my stomach to feed and a trachea in order to breathe. At that time I couldn't walk or talk either. While this was happening, my family would visit holding back their tears and pain to be support and strength for me. In return I also felt like I had to encourage them that I was going to be okay. The situation seemed hopeless but deep down inside I was determined to beat all the odds.

Did you fully recover? What was the long-term recovery process like for you?

Yes, but it took a long time. Even when I was released to go home I still couldn't breathe out of my mouth. The trachea remained for approximately six months before it was taken out. I had to believe I would breathe, talk, and walk again. Overall, it took about a year. However, my mental recovery was a drooling process that had many ups and downs. It was very tough on me. I lived about two to three blocks away from the tragedy. I use to panic late at night constantly looking through the blinds of the windows to see if someone was outside. Sometimes it would be so intense I would imagine people outside ready to do me harm. I was a nervous wreck when I was alone. Kids at junior high school would ridicule me because of the scars. I began to think I was the ugliest person in the world. If I ever got married, I didn't want kids because I thought my kids would be birthed with scars and I didn't want them to go through what I had gone through.

I build up anger, hatred, bitterness, and hopelessness. At times I wanted to rebel by getting involved in streets of gang violence, drugs, alcoholism, and crime. This was not easy at all but for some reason I never fit in and I realized it wasn't me. As I grew up, recovery was more of a state of mind. I had to change the way that I thought through the scriptures out of the holy bible. It gave me the recovery to believe that I was capable of overcoming any trial that I faced. One of my favorite scriptures are Philippians 4:13 (AMP) "I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me [I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me; I am self-sufficient in Christ's sufficiency].

Did you miss a lot of school, and if so, how were you able to keep up or catch up?

I missed the whole seventh grade year due to the injury. The city paid for a tutor to teach me. Ms. Page was my tutor. She was wonderful and treated me special. She had a special gift that made me smile.

How did your faith keep you going? Were there any particular individuals who made a difference in your life?

Initially, after leaving the hospital and getting settled at my new home with my Aunt, it was very challenging. I hated God, the situation and myself. I was haunted by trying to figure out why God allowed this to happen to me. I allowed it to build up a wall from anyone entering in. I felt like I didn't deserve it, I was only a child. Therefore I gave up for approximately four years on life. I couldn't open up and refused to let anyone in to understand what I was going through. However, there were times that I knew it was God intervening. Certain family members were essential in keeping my faith. At various times each one was a vital part of my life line. My Aunt would not let me feel sorry for myself, thinking that I was handicapped or strange. She ensured I was treated like a normal child was. At times I'm sure it was hard on her dealing with me but she continued to instill perseverance to pursue after life. My Big Brother had to be my father figure while he was still young himself. He ensured I was properly taken care of. Moreover, I am grateful for all of my family because they dealt with my pains while they had their own. They never rejected me or stop showing me love. Love is what made the difference.

How did this horrific experience impact your life? Were there blessings in disguise, and if so, how did you manage to find them?

Changes for the better didn't happen over night. It took endurance through the sadness, discouragements, pains, hurts, and frustrations. I hated having to go through it and I wished that it never happened. I preferred my mother being alive. This incident turned my life upside down and there was nothing I could do about it. I never knew it was going to turn around but I continued to live one day at a time. It was as if I were in hell and there was no way out. My life seemed ruined. It was as if I were being tortured being alive. I just couldn't find the light at the end of the tunnel. When I was sixteen, I was constantly getting in trouble at home and at school. I decided to run away. While at school, many things were rushing through my mind. While in class I got into a fight. The police, fire department and ambulance came. It seemed like my life was about to get worse. However, all the charges were dropped and I was sent to visit my brother in the Army. He and his wife were heavily in church. Eventually, I gave my life back to God and my life greatly turned around. The more I learned and understood Christianity, the more my weaknesses fell off. All this time, I was missing the love that only God could give me. Because of His love I live and have a greater conviction to fulfill my purpose in life!

I know that you have a passion for bringing hope to others. Can you tell us about that? What activities are you involved with that enable you to minister or help others?

I believe that we all go through our challenges for a reason. Our challenge has much to offer. Initially, it may not seem like its worth the time because of the hurts it brings. However, when we face our challenge, look at it and deal with it, God turns the misery to ministry. Once we find that reason we must use it to the best of our abilities to give back to society. For this reason I live to encourage, motivate, and inspire those that can't get past the scar that changed their life. I have been involved with prison ministry, jail ministry, juvenile detention centers, feeding the homeless, donating gifts to abused and batter women and children, coached special Olympics, etc.. Also, I've spoken at various churches and its seminars, Nation Crime Victims Rights week, ICAN teen summit television show, radio stations, Jr. High Schools and book events.

Most of us can't imagine going through such a physically and emotionally traumatic experience, especially as a child. Yet our own struggles, regardless of what they are, have deep, personal significance for us. What advice can you provide based on what you've experienced and overcome?

I believe if we trust God anything that we are challenged to face is not so traumatic we aren't capable of overcoming it. Life is too short for us to hold on to the hurt and pain while the person or persons have moved on with their lives and we're still stuck in that same place of defeat. Yet it may be difficult initially, we can overcome it. Lastly, "Unless we forgive, we can not live!" In other words, we have to let it go. It's that simple.

What ultimately inspired you to write Scarred for Life? What are your plans for the future?

What ultimately inspired me to write Scarred for Life was the realization that my testimony was a tremendous victory that others needed to hear. I have told my story many times at various places and the outcome always encouraged and inspired others to not give up hope in God in their trials. I simply had a desire to encourage more people. So I wrote my story on paper. It was not easy bringing back all of those memories. There were many times I cried and walked away from the computer as I wrote. There were times I wanted to quit but I just couldn't. I didn't want my work to be unfinished. So I pressed and push through the tears and I completed my first book. Moreover, I'm not finished yet; I am now working on my sequel and hope it will be finished by October 2009. My ultimate goal is to make a movie out of the story.

Do you have a life motto or words that you live by? If so, why these words?

"Unless you forgive, you can not live!" I am determined to fulfill my purpose in life. Every trial that I face is a stepping stone for me to move forward. It is impossible to enjoy life while I'm holding onto hurts and pains. I refuse to let a scarred situation hold me back from living life. So instead I let it go. By doing this it takes away the sting out of it and makes it easier to deal with.

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6527212 July 02, 2009

Pieces of Penelope (1985, 19 years old)

If you've been following along, this may be a good time to go back and read the introduction to The Aberration Nation Teen Event.

In 1985, my parents divorced. I had managed to isolate myself from everyone. Coincidentally, I studied death and dying in a medical sociology class. No one knew how I felt or what was going on in my day to day world.

Meanwhile, I was making straight A's in college, smiling a lot, and looking as if I hadn't a care in the world. In '84, I'd gotten involved with a guy who, unknowingly, managed to push every button necessary to unleash all the emotion I'd experienced as a result of my dysfunctional childhood environment.

In 1985, I hit rock bottom.

(On a lighter note, now everyone knows why I'm not a a poet ... remember, not award winning just honest.)

My heart is a flower,
That blossoms in the light,
Only to wither in the dark night,
A box that fills the inside up,
That clenches tight,
Deep within,
A desolate place that houses nothing,
My spirit burned to the ground,
Extinct,
Sacrificed for a promised future,
My human mind cannot yet see.


***

My heart grieves until it drips and bubbles,
Dancing flames, downing maiden,
This life I love drags me down,
Every room is filled with silent clowns,
Teasing me, hurting me,
Reminders of what I used to be.
Today my windows were open wide,
Teardrops fell like thunderstorms,
Time is late for it's appointment,
These wounds are open wide.
This love I feel is out of hand,
It drenches me when you're around,
Don't look my way, obey your mind,
Your silent strength I see right through,
That silence your heart believes,
Has no sound,
It screams at me through your eyes,
And into your heart it let's me spy,
But stay away, I can grow,
Away from you in time.

***

An exploding bomb,
Subconscious strength,
Hatred escaping,
Finally an open door.

***

Sitting stiffly in a crowded ugly space,
Faces laughing, bodies dancing,
Yet the space inside
Twists and squeezes
Like an empty swollen gut,
Paralyzed by the pain,
Rejection spreading through my hollow places
Like a disease winning,
Killing me.

***

Tonight a part of me must die,
I'm growing, learning everyday,
Yet this hidden strength blinds my way,
The strongest part,
The bitter heart,
That can't let go,
That can't forgive,
It's fighting for the chance to live.

Tonight a warrior must surrender,
This chip must crash, fall from my shoulder,
It's time to roll away the boulder,
The hardest part,
The broken heart,
That can't grow up,
That can't forget,
The overwhelming pain it's met.

Tonight a new heart must take form,
It's time to fit, pieces together,
So I can find my own forever,
The saddest part,
The loss of heart,
That must take place,
That must make room,
Now the new can fill its tomb.

***

A voice said,
"It's time to leave,"
I didn't want to go,
Then it yelled,
"Get out! Go home!"
The voice shed tears
I could not see.

A stream once flowed,
Pure emotion,
Beauty and a feeling
We dared not name,
The single soul
Once created
Now is lost,
No coming home.

Love and hate,
Our closest friends,
For a time,
Filled our cup,
Used us up,
Left behind,
We wagered war,
We paid the cost,
Now we've lost,
Each other.

***

This icy heart,
Will it part?
Shining through filtered light,
Revealing beauty yet unseen,
With eyes like yours,
Mirrors in my dreams.

If only these chambers could tell a story,
All they've seen and how they've grown,
My human soul is left unchanging, whilst
This heart is forever rearranging.

Two powers struggling inside of me,
Which holds me captive?
Which will set me free?

Dancing wildly on a sea of bitter salt,
A ritual reflecting deep turmoil,
The drumbeat of the heart my rhythm,
Drowning out the pain of healing.

The secret sea inside of me,
Rages wildly,
Building up,
Someday it's power will take control,
And burst through these doors inside my soul.

***

Dancing wildly about my lover,
As he stands so still,
Upon that majestic pedestal,
I alone built for him,
Beyond my reach,
Place by me in a faraway world,
Where he alone can go.

Now time has bruised my tender heart,
Frightened by his secret stare,
My heart trembles in its tightened space.

Bubbling blood streams from my eyes,
Windows to my inner soul,
That fail to hide the wounds,
Wounds from the battle,
Our battle.

***

Love slammed her door,
On intellect pounding,
Then she ran,
And drinking up,
She filled her
Draining cup
With you.

The war within,
Raging sin,
Overcame,
The tender heart,
The love
That laughed
With you
Is dead.

Inside of me,
Bleeding blindness,
In times of you,
Where was I?

Today,
You live inside
This crystal heart
I've cultivated,
When it shatters
Once again,
Say hello
And smile for me,
Then turn and run,
Forever free.

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6527212 June 30, 2009

Pieces of Penelope (1984, 18 years old)

During 1984 and '85, I wrote less in my journal, and instead focused on writing poetry. As I noted in the the introduction to the Aberration Nation Teen Event, don't expect award winning writing--only honesty.

In January of 1984, I graduated from high school early and started college in my hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana. That summer one of my best childhood friends was killed in a car accident along with two others from my high school. When my novel, Boundaries, is published, it will be dedicated to my dear friend, Virginia Anne Reeves (1966 - 1984). Although it was a slow process, her tragic death ultimately influenced my life in a positive way.





Her shattered heart wears a smile,
And looks beyond the lies,
He unlocked the mind of her.

***

Disappointment is my closest friend,
Each little dream that falls apart,
Each time a crack forms in my heart,
She appears so vividly,
Disappointment with her melancholy smile.

So many visions have passed me by,
All they gave were tears to cry,
Life to me, a mystery,
Illusive clues lurk in my mind,
Their tool, the imagination.

As images grow into clear reality,
Disappointment comes to rescue me,
The me I gave,
The ends I seek,
Broken, battered children
weeping at my feet.

***

Cold breezes,
Chill my heart,
In the night,
The bitter fight,
Rages on.

Summer day,
All the way,
Time erases,
All the pain,
I feel.

***

Renegade lover,
Stand still for me,
My shattered heart wears a smile
And looks beyond the lies.

Someday I'll be your secret friend,
I'll know your dreams,
I'll feel your sorrows,
Sweet, sweet lover till the bitter end.

***

Tiny dancer in my soul,
It's time to live,
It's time for me,
Regretful smile lurk in my mind,
I wonder if they'll fade in time.

***

On lonely days I miss your smile,
I miss your condescending style,
I miss your cruelty,
I miss your scorn,
For what we lost,
I'll always mourn.

On lonely nights I miss your voice,
I miss the way I had no choice,
I miss your smirk,
I miss your singing,
Echos of my recent past,
In my heart,
Forever ringing.

***

Shadows plunge the light away,
The color dulls,
All I have is what I am inside,
Attempting to recall the used to bes,
How I loved,
How I hated.

Void of you my heart is clean,
Now remembering is empty,
Like you.

I see and feel the final truth,
You were once my reality,
You are the lie I lived.

***

A space in time,
A place that's mine,
Yet not mine,
I give to you this,
Awakening,
Building,
Brightening dream,
On I fight against the current,
Fighting now just for me,
One day I'll fight for you.

***

Eyes meet,
Souls collide,
Lips touch,
Fears subside.

Hands touch,
Dreams mingle,
Hopes rise,
Two now single.

***

One teardrop fell from my eyes,
It fell beneath a thundering sky,
Falling with it were my dreams,
In that one tear,
A thousand things,
All died.

Love to me was all my dreams
Of what I felt love should be,
Storybook endings and preconceived notions,
Forever in place,
Never in motion.

I made a vow inside myself
That I would put love on the shelf,
Never again would this heart break,
There is so much my heart can take.

Lying here,
Being still,
I'm trying to say
Just how I feel.

There is a dream you're reaching for,
You own a dream that's coming true,
If I could only make you see,
I'm reaching out for my dream, too.

Slow dancing with me in your dark,
Your laughter talks straight to my heart,
Happy smiles that pierce the night,
Could it be,
It's finally right.

Confusion tangos with my heart,
Cobwebs creeping through my dark,
Is this a dream or is it real,
Is this the way true love
Should feel?

***

Building bridges,
Running across,
Changing the truth,
Compensating loss.

Saying they care,
Building bridges,
Running across,
Fraying the ridges.

Running across,
Leaving me behind,
Saying they care,
Playing with my mind.

Changing the truth,
Causing me pain,
Learning to build,
I'll do the same.

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6527212 June 28, 2009

Pieces of Penelope (1983, 17 years old)


... I HAVE TO love myself the most--not be selfish but just have self esteem, and know that I can accomplish so much in my life--and I will...

***

... I feel like I'm just walking through a dessert and there's no one around for hundreds and hundreds of miles. I just don't understand, and it hurts so much to feel so rejected and so lacking. As if there's something missing that I'll never have. I'm actually afraid for the school year to start. For the last two years, terrible things have happened, and I want so badly to be happy. Why does God allow me to feel this way? I'll never know. I just have to tell myself that all people go through lonely times and that there is nothing wrong with me...

***

I just feel lonely today. I wonder if other people feel like this as much as I do? I wish I knew. I just have to face reality so I'm trying to figure out what it is.

Lonely does as lonely is,
Lonely gives as lonely is.

***


My Life is a paradox,
My heart a lonely hunter,
My melancholy smile,
Isn't real at all ...




***

I feel so bored and lonely. This is ridiculous. I have so many things to be excited about but yet I feel like all there is before me is a blank space that I have to fill in order to get somewhere, or to someone or something. What is it? Maybe I'm just going through a stage. That must be it.

***

I have my pride and I'm not gonna be put in the same category with a bunch of love sick girls. I realize now that I've been acting just like all the other girls in the world. I've got to be different and I will be ...

***

I just wish school would start so I can think about something else. I'm going to study hard. Right now I really don't have any close friends. I'm turning into quite a loner. It's what I want in a way but yet it's really not. I'm just going to try to channel my ambitions or passions or whatever towards studying. I've got to start giving myself more credit. I've got to grow up a little. The time has come for me to start seeing myself as an adult and acting like one.

***

Try as I might to break loose from sorrow,
She walks with me,
Every yesterday and tomorrow,
Trust is gone,
From my heart forever,
Perhaps someday I'll find my place.

'Till then I'll forge on ahead,
Never look back,
Let the dead be dead,
Fate has a surprising future for me,
Someday not only I but the world will see.

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6527212 June 26, 2009

Pieces of Penelope (1982, 16 years old)


... All I know is that if I just had one kiss from that guy, that's all I would need to sustain me for at least another six months ....

***

Love that hurts,
Love that takes,
Love that loves
For loves own sake ...

***

... Yesterday I had the most traumatic experience of my life. I cannot explain it but all I know is that it was hard and it hurt, and I will remember it until the day I die ...

***

... It seems like the good things that are supposed to be in life just don't notice me ...

***

... I'm tired of hurting. I know there is some hurt I can't avoid but as I look back at my past, I know there was so much I could have avoided. I bring so much upon myself ...

***

... I hope I'm growing up so bad ...

***

... I think I tend to idolize people too much ... even the people I don't like. I've been trying to see myself in the way that I see everyone else. Maybe that's the root of my problem. I've excluded myself from my overall image of the world, and maybe that has made me feel like I'm never good enough ...

***

... I think I just realized why I don't trust people. All this time, instead of trying to see myself the way I see everyone else, I've been trying to see everyone the way I see myself -- which doesn't work because it's giving me a depressed outlook on life and people. I have people idolized and the next, I have them hitting the floor. I don't want to trust anyone for fear that I'll be the fool and just prove over and over that I don't belong in the good world -- but only in the bad. This doesn't even give me a chance to be in the good world because trying to drag people into the bad world turns them off and away, which leaves me totally confused and worse off.

***

When sorrow speaks it calls my name,
When love laughs it laughs at me ...

***

Tonight I have been thinking ...

I have committed many a sin in my life. Greater than any man can know. In my heart, I will never know the reasons or will I feel forgiven ... What counts is how you play the game, live the life. I will be happy for my friends when they are happy. I will weep for them when they are sad. Never will I judge a person for I know my sins are many. I will be happy with life, for who I am, for what I feel, and will not waste joy by living in the past. I will treat each man the same for fate will bring love when love is right. I will not worry about useless things. I will not be saddened by things unsaid but will rejoice in words I hear. Life will be fine. The happy moments will outlive the sad. I will sin a great many times to come but yet I will be content for I know life would be but an empty shell if I had not sorrows to contrast with my joy. Forever, I will live each day in Springtime and when pain knocks at my heart, I will endure and love just the same. "Never stop risking" will be the words in my heart. I will remember to risk and to feel sadness is better than to not risk and not "feel." This way, at least I will know I'm alive.

***

A rainstorm rages in paradise,
Her nature split,
Struggling against the tide,
Trapped inside,
She hides ...

***

So many times I've missed the point,
I've stayed too long, and left too soon,
You'd think by now
I'd learn to play
the game.



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6527212 April 13, 2009

Lessons in Relativity from the State of Autism: An Aberration Story

It's not a perfect world, but we are luckier than most.

I assume we'd all like to be happy 100% of the time. When I was younger, I was unhappy most of the time. I finally decided that a string of pain would always run through me--it was simply my nature to be a bit dissatisfied. Ironically, this realization boosted my happiness level. I began to take more pleasure in the positives in the mix rather than maintaining an intense focus on that never ending, unshakable sadness. I learned that happiness is relative.

If you've been reading my blog for awhile, you know that my dissatisfaction lingers. I try to keep it in check but at times it peaks out overtaking me, my accomplishments, my marriage, etc. creating complex knots that I work to untie and reorganize like colorful ribbons into nice, neat bows. It's not always easy. Somehow I've managed to use those dark moments to better illuminate the brighter ones, like stepping out of a cave into a startlingly beautiful sunny day.

Thinking about all this reminds me of the movie Flowers for Algernon starring Matthew Modine. In a nutshell, it's about a happy, mentally challenged man whose intelligence begins to sharpen by way of a scientific experiment. As his mind sharpens, he experiences the deeper beauty of life he couldn't fathom in his previous state. Oh how wonderful! But as he continues to grow smarter and smarter, he becomes disturbed, dissatisfied, bitter, and fearful. All because he begins to understand how life can suck, and that the world isn't always fair and just and right. Eventually, he begins to regress, and becomes desperate to undo what is happening to him but fails. He once again becomes that simple, happy guy, and we are left to ponder which is a better state.

Flowers for Algernon fills the viewer with numerous questions related to happiness, satisfaction, and awareness. Knowing all that we know and having all that we have, how can we possibly be happy? Well, we can take a lesson from another Matthew, a guy who faces social and neurological challenges everyday. Matthew Shumaker is the focus of his mother's book, A Regular Guy: Growing up with Autism.

Laura Shumaker is a great mom! She has raised a son, who by the standards of all the neurotypical folks out there, ought to be hanging his head in sadness lamenting all the ills that life has dumped in his path. Yet he moves toward happiness, rather than away from it, in his own profound way. Although he longs to be a regular guy, he doesn't view his life as a constant struggle. He's proud of what he does and what he knows. He and his mother are an inspiration and a gift to those of us tempted to sit around focusing on what we don't have and what we can't do.

Your book, A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism, covers many years. Can you begin by telling us how you first became aware that Matthew was autistic?

We began to suspect something was up with Matthew when he was about two years old. His language development slowed and he became echolalic, meaning he would repeat words we said to him rather than being conversational. At the same time, he developed some odd behaviors. He lined up his toys, and was fascinated with water going down drains and with wheels. When he was three, Santa asked him what he wanted for Christmas and he said, "A drain." Santa said, "A Train? I might be able to get you a train!"

About the same time we noticed his strange language and behaviors, Matthew's neurotypical brother Andy was born. As we watched Andy develop, Matthew's delayed development became glaring.

What was your first reaction to finding out about Matthew's autism, and how did you cope?

I was determined to fix him! So many doctors and psychologists used the term delay so I thought, Well, I'll just help him catch up. Acceptance was a long way away. When Matthew was about ten, I really hit the wall and found a great therapist who helped me get the help I needed such as respite care and mentors for Matthew so that I could enjoy my other two sons and get a rest. My parents and other family members were incredibly supportive and helped me keep my sense of humor.

As Matthew was growing up, what were the toughest hurdles for him? How were you able to help him through these?

As quirky and socially awkward as Matthew was growing up, he CRAVED friendship and it was nearly impossible to help him learn how to find and keep friends. That's when I started hiring friends--helpers and mentors (usually college guys) who could hang out with him and do guy things. Matthew learned a lot from these terrific helpers. But he still needs a lot of social skills training! One of our biggest problems has always been explosive public meltdowns, which picked up steam as Matthew entered adolescence. He's been taking medication that helps him manage his frustration and outbursts--a God send. These days, there are medications that help the lives of autistic individuals with pretty favorable side effect profiles.

Your book shares some of the painful circumstances that Matthew found himself in. It's tough for any parent to watch their child suffer, whether it's emotional or physical. How did you get through these situations, and what did you learn? What did Matthew learn?

I learned patience! And I learned that when I was struggling and feeling embarrassed and humiliated by Matthew's behavior, people were willing to help if they understood what I was dealing with. For example, one time Matthew saw an elderly woman fall down and he ran to her side and started to laugh. Onlookers looked at me like I was a horrible mother until they saw how mortified I was. "I am so sorry," I said, "My son is autistic." I ended up getting more sympathy than the poor woman who took a tumble!

I also learned that those who weren't so nice had their own reasons. Everyone has a story. As my father used to tell me, "Maybe his wife left him today," or "Maybe her dog bit her today." Matthew continues to learn that there are consequences for his behavior. One of his problems is that he (still) thinks he can bother or tease (or even hit) people, and that when they get angry he can just say he's sorry and everything will be forgotten. Unfortunately, that's not how the world works.

Every child is unique and lovable. What are some of the unique things about Matthew that you love?

Matthew has a great sense of humor and the most wonderful, gurgle-filled laugh. He is a tireless worker and will work in the garden from dawn to dusk without complaint. He enjoys helping his friends who are more disabled than him. He loves his family. The thing I love most about Matthew is his face breaking smile when someone is kind to him.

As he was growing up, what were some of the things you did to help Matthew learn, grow, and become the young man he is today?

When I found something that Matthew enjoyed doing (painting, yard work, cooking), I used those activities as rewards and made the most of them for teaching moments. I made sure everyone who cared for him at school and at home did the same. Matthew loved the consistency and learned that he was valued for his talents and abilities. Now he considers himself a landscaping specialist and is very proud of that. I'm sure that will be his livelihood.

Every parent wants their children to be happy and healthy. When faced with a diagnosis such as autism, can parents believe that their child can still live a happy and healthy life?

I'll never forget the day Matthew was interviewed by a social worker. She needed proof that he was disabled enough to receive social security benefits. She said, "I have a cousin who struggles the way you do." Matthew looked shocked. "How do I struggle?" he asked.

Happiness is relative, and it's a challenge to help a person with a communication disorder find it, but it is possible!

I'm guessing that as a child and young adult, you never imagined you would have someone like Matthew in your life. Now that you have raised him, would you trade the experience for something the world deems as 'better?" What has parenting Matthew brought to your personal life? What does it continue to bring?

Having a son like Matthew is a gift, not just for me, but for our whole family. We are so much more tolerant of others--whether they are disabled or not! We appreciate our own good health, and have all developed patience and humor in all areas of life.

At the same time, having a child with autism is a strain. My husband and I are still together (so many couples break under the weight of the years of stress), and joke that we'd have a hard time explaining Matthew on Match.com. It has been stressful for my sons, Andy and John, and while we have planned for the future, I'm sure they worry. It's not a perfect world, but we are luckier than most. We have a great circle of family, friends and helpers who support us.

In your opinion, what is the number one misconception about autism?

The NUMBER ONE misconception is that people with autism are ALL in their own world--that they are all the same. NOT true. Many crave relationships/friendships and just have a very difficult time forming them. Matthew has been telling me lately that he wants to live with a woman and get married (in that order!)

What are the top three things you would like to say to parents who are just discovering that they have an autistic child?

The top three things:

1) EARLY INTERVENTION! Outcomes can be so much better if parents get an early diagnosis and start treatment

2) Don't forget the siblings. Make sure you give them the attention--one on one--that they deserve. I used to leave Matthew with a helper or with my husband and take my sons John and Andy for fun outings--sometimes together, sometimes just one on one. It was wonderful.

3) If you are feeling depressed or are simply getting sick a lot from the stress--get help. See your doctor and get the name of a good psychotherapist. Some people like group therapy. I found one on one psychotherapy more helpful.

AND MOST OF ALL-keep your sense of humor.

Watch the book trailer for A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism:




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6527212 January 05, 2009

Manic: An Aberration Story


"Everything I feel, I feel intensely--whether it's joy or pain, love or desperation.
"

There's an aberration that charms the most brilliant of us into believing we're invincible, capable of impossible dreams, beautiful, godlike, high on ourselves--just before crushing us into a million tiny pieces of nothing. Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, is a mental illness characterized by extreme changes in mood (poles)--from mania to depression--that can be serious and disabling.

Terri Cheney knows firsthand how the whirlwind of emotion caused by bipolar disorder can twist reality, turning every day life events into dramatic, painful escapades of secrecy and survival. Her memoir, Manic (HarperCollins) will be released in paperback on February 3rd. Per HarperCollins, this harrowing yet hopeful book is more than just a searing insider's account of what it's really like to live with bipolar disorder. It is a testament to the sharp beauty of a life lived in extremes.

Having specialized in intellectual property and entertainment law at several prominent Los Angeles firms, Terri now devotes her talents to the cause of mental illness. She was named a member of the board of the California Bipolar Foundation and the Community Advisory Board of the UCLA Mood Disorders Research Program. She is also the founder of a weekly support group at UCLA’s Semel Institute.

Terri was fascinated by Aberration Nation, and quite eager to join the ranks. Being a fellow writer and having my own set of aberrations, I'm in awe of her accomplishments. Reading her story helps me feel understood--not based on a diagnosis but rather on our shared humanity. After all, isn't that much bigger than any common aberration? We're all human; that's what Aberration Nation is all about.

You have been diagnosed with manic depression. Can you tell us in plain terms what it's like to struggle with manic depression, particularly alone, as you did for so many years?

It wasn't until the past few years, when I've been relatively stable, that I've been able to look back on my life and realize how incredibly hard it has been. It's amazing, after so many suicide attempts, that I am here today to respond to this question. Everything I feel, I feel intensely--whether it's joy or pain, love or desperation. I'm slowly beginning to realize that much of the world doesn't respond this way. My survival is a source of great amazement to me.
For most of my childhood and early adulthood, I was consumed by guilt. I was sure that whatever was wrong with me was purely my fault--that it was volitional, and if I just worked hard enough at being normal, I could. That guilt eased somewhat when I was diagnosed in 1987, when I was 27 years old. It was the wrong diagnosis--the doctor assumed I was "just" depressed--but still, it helped. Then when I was finally diagnosed in 1994 with manic depression, I felt an enormous sense of relief. My chaotic life actually made sense to me, for the first time. It wasn't all my fault. It was a chemical disorder for which there was help, and hope, and treatment.

Was there anything that seemed to trigger your illness as a teenager? As a child, was there any indication that your path would take the direction that it did?

I'm writing a second book now, a childhood memoir. It's been surprising to discover how much of my bipolar disorder had its seeds in my childhood and adolescence. I was a very intense overachiever, extremely sensitive to criticism or the threat of rejection or failure. I was suicidal at age seven, which should have clued me in to the fact that I was ill, but it didn't. I just learned very early on to hide my illness behind my achievements, a pattern that continues to this very day.

Once you were diagnosed, did the burden ease significantly or do you still struggle day to day? How have you learned to cope and keep the swaying tides of manic depression at a level that you can feel happy and fulfilled?

I still struggle--I'm just coming out of a bout of depression as I write this. But I'm so much saner than I've ever been, because over the course of the past eight years, I've harvested so many recovery tools. I go to therapy every week, I have a good relationship with my psychopharmacologist, and I'm very medication-compliant. I run a weekly support group at UCLA for people with a dual diagnosis--mental illness combined with substance abuse. (I've been sober for nine years, which still amazes me.) And my writing has been immensely cathartic. I'm in two writing groups, which give me support and structure and discipline. I also had to make the tough decision to give up the practice of law, because it was too stressful for me. But I've always wanted to write, so doing what I love best in the world is a tremendous gift. I miss the money, but I'm so much more personally fulfilled now.

Obviously, like many aberrations, manic depression isn't fun nor is it to be celebrated. It stinks! However, through your diagnosis, recovery, and ongoing challenges, what positives have you found? In what ways has this negative, powerful force in your life enabled you to become the courageous, positive person you are today?

I think it's obvious to everyone by now that there is a definite link between manic depression and creativity. Were it not for my bipolar disorder, I doubt that I would be a writer. My illness has kept me on the outside, watching; it makes me feel things very deeply; and I think I see the world at a slightly different angle from most people--all of which are two-edged swords, of course, but great for writing. Also, as a result of my own suffering, I am very attuned to others' feelings. My empathy helps me put my own struggles into perspective.

What are the top three things that friends and family can do for someone dealing with manic depression?

First, don't try to argue or reason with depression. Just ask where it hurts. Your empathy will mean more to the person than all your cheery, well-meaning attempts to make it better.

Second, educate yourself about the disease. Know the signs and symptoms of the different mood states. If you can speak the vocabulary of the illness, you will be able to help your loved ones articulate what is going on with them--which is invaluable, not just for their own need to be understood, but for their communication with their doctors.

Third, do whatever you can to help your loved ones get sober. Many people with bipolar disorder self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. But the medications simply don't work when someone is abusing substances. Find out about twelve-step meetings in your area (google "Dual Recovery Anonymous") and offer to go along. Sobriety is a critical step to bipolar recovery, which is all too often ignored.

If you could tell the world anything about manic depression, what would that be?

I would tell the world that it's not just a mental illness. It's physical, incredibly physical. I'm amazed, every time I slip into depression, how true this is. My entire body is affected, not just my mind. Manic depression is a chemical disorder of the brain. It's as real and physical as diabetes or cancer. I think if more people understood this, stigma would lessen and true compassion would emerge.

To learn more about bipolar disorder, go here and here.
To learn more about Terri, go here.

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6527212 December 30, 2008

Out of Focus: An Aberration Story


"I couldn’t break through my fog and do what I was asked to do."


Most of us have lost our train of thought and our keys a time or two. We've forgotten exactly where we parked at the mall or the airport. We've had an off day when we couldn't seem to get anything done. We've said the wrong thing at the wrong tim
e. We've faced indecision and confusion as to what our next steps in life should be. We've been distracted from the task at hand, or made a dumb move based on impulse. Well, in a nutshell, I've just described the day-to-day life of Jane, a 66-year-old grandmother from Texas. Jane has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While most of us have learned from or easily managed the scenarios described above, Jane lacks the skills to navigate through this common maze of life experience.

According to WEbMD, ADHD is one of the most well-recognized childhood developmental problems. The condition is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. It is now known that these symptoms continue into adulthood for about 60% of children with ADHD. That translates into 4% of the US adult population, or 8 million adults. However, few adults are identified or treated for adult ADHD. Adults with ADHD consistently have problems with interpersonal relationships and employment. The hyperactivity of childhood often becomes restlessness and impulsiveness in adults. They may have difficulty following directions, remembering information, concentrating, organizing tasks or completing work within time limits.

Let's hear from Jane how this lifelong aberration has affected her. When Jane had trouble focusing on and completing the interview, I worked with her via telephone to get it done. Keeping her focused on the question at hand was a constant struggle. She had the best intentions, and wanted so badly to share her experience with others. In the end, she did a FANTASTIC job!

Describe ADHD for us using your own terms? What is it like and how does it impact your day-to-day life?

ADHD affects each individual a bit differently. For me, it's best described as getting mentally stuck due to a constant, overwhelming influx of stimuli. I can’t move in any direction because there are too many choices. Too much information is coming into my head at once and I can’t sort it out and prioritize; it all seems equally important. A simple example is walking into the kitchen and seeing that I need to do the dishes but I also need to cook and water the plants, etc. I can’t choose and proceed with my life. The inability to prioritize the simplest things impacts my entire life. On some days, my mind is so scattered that it can’t focus on any one thing. ADHD often keeps me in a haze and makes it extremely difficult to get from point A to point B; sequential thinking is nearly impossible. However, some days aren’t too bad.

How did you come to be diagnosed with ADHD?

I didn’t find out I had ADHD until I was 60-years-old. I often knew something was wrong but couldn’t quite pinpoint it. I dared not talk to people about it. I feared they would misunderstand because I couldn’t explain it well. Many people with ADHD become depressed due to all the rejection they feel as a result of their seemingly irresponsible and irrational behaviors. For six years before my diagnosis, I had been seeing a particular psychiatrist for depression. He knew that my son had ADHD. I mentioned to him how terrified I was about taking a new job although I was highly qualified. I’d always had my own business and had been able to somehow manage, but the idea of having to take instructions and follow someone else’s rules and processes was overwhelming. The resulting discussion made him suspect ADHD so we began to explore the possibility. I took the job; I was the most experienced designer among 16 at a top high-end furniture store in Dallas, Texas. Regardless, I was fired within three months. I couldn’t follow directions. I couldn’t break through my fog and do what I was asked to do. As a result of that job experience and ongoing discussions with my psychiatrist, I was finally diagnosed the ADHD.

How has having ADHD shaped your life in general, including your self esteem?

In my personal life, it played a huge part in destroying my first marriage and later alienating my children from me. It has impacted my self esteem negatively although I try to focus on the positives in my life. I’ve learned that ADHD impacts my social skills. I’m aware that my actions may hurt others and so I try to monitor myself. I try to take responsibility for my actions and make sure that I apologize if I make an inappropriate social move. For this reason, I strive to be aware of what's happening around me as best I can. I work on improving my self esteem every day; it’s an ongoing challenge.

What do you think are the most common misconceptions about ADHD?

People with ADHD are not perceived as having a true medical condition; instead they’re often viewed as being unreliable, poor listeners, too talkative, inappropriate in social settings, etc. When we fail, the people around us don’t always connect that failure with a medical issue. When we try to explain what ADHD is, and how it impacts our behavior, they don’t always accept it. People tend to downplay the explanation, saying, “Oh, everyone forgets things. Everyone has those days. We all get through it, why can’t you?” They don’t understand or accept how debilitating it can be for adults. People tend to associate ADHD with hyperactive children so they don’t accept that it can impact an adult’s actions and personality the way it can. They don’t see it as a disability.

How have you learned to cope with having ADHD?

I’ve learned to be more disciplined on a day to day basis. I do well if I keep a daily schedule that is set up in 15 minute increments. Although I’m a fairly outgoing person, I’ve realized that I need a certain amount of time to myself. I have to have down time from all the stimuli. I hesitate to interact with people on an ongoing daily basis although I have some great friends. I know now that I can do much better at jobs or with a project that allows flexibility and a more relaxed time table. I’ve always been able to laugh at myself, which has served me well.

How does ADHD make you unique? What are the positive aspects that you value and why?

I’ve developed a deep compassion towards others. I don’t judge the motives of others because I understand that people take certain actions for reasons beyond our understanding. I’m highly creative and able to think outside the box, which helped propel my career as an interior designer earlier in my life. In general, people with ADHD, including myself, are great at brainstorming. We can come with all kinds unique, excellent ideas because our brains aren’t tied to one thing within the moment. We can take one thought and explode it much further than the average person, which leads to creative insight. We are often extremely focused on the topics we’re interested in but not focused enough on everything else. This helps us to excel significantly in some areas although it causes issues in others.

I can see the outcome or bottom line for an issue, problem, or situation immediately although I can’t always discern the intermediate steps. I’m a big picture thinker. Many of us are skilled at projecting into the far future regarding outcomes for various scenarios. This has helped me throughout my life in many ways.

Although we may not always respond properly, generally, people with ADHD, including myself, are skilled at reading body language. We make great intuitive decisions based on non-verbal clues.

ADHD runs in your family. Has this helped the situation or does it further complicate matters?

Earlier in life, it complicated our family dynamic although none of us understood what was going on at the time. I believe ADHD has impacted the lives of all three of my siblings, and both of my children in various ways. My youngest brother is the only one who is open about it. He understands me better than almost anyone, and we often talk through issues together. This helps tremendously because I know he understands and loves me just the way I am.

What can we do for someone with ADHD?

1) If you suspect that your child has ADHD, please press for early diagnosis so you can help provide the skills they need to be successful.

2) Be willing to recognize that almost everything we do is connected with our ADHD, and give us a lot of slack. Focusing on the positive is critical!

3) When we’re not performing as you think we should, ask us what our thought process is rather than criticizing our actions right away.

4) Have patience, and give us a lot of love and forgiveness.

5) Don’t take everything we do or say too seriously as we have issues with social interaction. Although we may be extroverted, we are often lacking in standard social skills and tend not to filter our thoughts appropriately.

6) Laugh with us because we do a lot of silly things!

I think Jane could use a blast of positive feedback! If you learned from this post or agree that Jane did a great job, leave a comment. Your encouragement will mean the world to her.

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6527212 October 28, 2008

Raising Mommy: An Aberration Story


"Growing up with a very volatile person has given me great patience when dealing with others."

This painting, Brute Strength, represents the struggle of growing up in the shadow of a mental illness. As the adolescent or young adult grows, reaching for the road that leads away from the pain of childhood, an almost organic entanglement with the mentally ill parent constantly pulls them back toward an unhealthy world. This unique conflict mixed with the more common adolescent struggles with right and wrong, and what falls in between, can create a situation that follows the child far into adulthood, impacting their behaviors, choices, and perceptions.

I've lived it and so has Ali, the newest member of the Aberration Nation. I had the pleasure of meeting Ali at a narcolepsy support meeting in Toronto earlier this year. She's a courageous young woman who refuses to let her own aberrations inhibit her strong positive focus while also helping others to do the same. She's a role model for me, and I'm delighted to share her story with you.

What it was like growing up with a mentally ill parent?

I'm lucky to have a few memories of my mother when she still behaved like a typical mom. She was very creative and involved with my sister and me. She liked making crafts and taking us on mystery tours to playgrounds we'd never seen. However, around the time of my ninth birthday, things changed drastically. My mom became confused, and couldn't express herself properly. She couldn't use the phone, had very poor balance, and couldn't cook. Although I wasn't aware of any specifics, I knew something was very wrong. The following year, Mom moved in and out of the psychiatric ward for several weeks at a time. That's when I became the mother figure.

Twice, I came home from school and found the house full of smoke. My mom had been trying to cook. I had to call the fire department. Another day, she climbed on a chair in the kitchen and fell. I picked her up and put her to bed, then called my dad and asked him to come home from work because I was scared. My younger sister was quite sheltered from most of this. I didn't realise how much I protected her until we discussed it as adults. We're very close because of what we've been through together, and my sister is grateful that she was able to have a childhood while I took on responsibilities beyond my years.

As a child, what were your top priorities?

When my dad left for work each morning, he always reminded me not to let Mom touch the stove, not to let her go downstairs, and so on. It never seemed unusual to me that I had to do so much for my mother. After school I would babysit her instead of going to a babysitter myself. My dad worked in the city, and rode the bus two hours each way, so we were very much on our own. My top priorities became making sure my mom and sister had what they needed until my dad got home. My kid time was in the evenings when Dad took me to Guides or a church youth group. In school, I didn't relate well to the other kids. I was an easy target for bullies, but I thrived in Guides where maturity and responsibility were prized.

How did you come to understand that your family was different in this way, and how did you cope?

Around age twelve, my parents took me to see a social worker due to depression and my dislike of school. Not knowing that my mother had been diagnosed as mentally ill, I was only able to describe her behaviour and how it made me feel. The social worker tried to have me role play communication with my mom; she pretended to be my mom. I became very frustrated when the social worker wouldn't believe that my mother wouldn't listen if I told her I wanted to talk about something, and would instead either ignore me or become very angry and rude. This was the first of a string of social workers and psychologists who made me feel like an alien because my family was like no other they were aware of.

My coping mechanism became to stay away from home when possible. I immersed myself in volunteer work with Rangers, the local youth centre, and anything else I could get into. When things became too intense at home, I would walk to a local park and sit under a tree reading a book for a while. Sometimes I would walk around town all day, window shopping, talking to strangers, and just trying to forget what I had escaped from at home.

How did having a parent suffering with mental illness impact your ability to relate to others as you matured? Did it somehow expand and/or squelch this ability?

Having been a caregiver at such a young age, I have always assumed leadership roles. In Guides, I was a Patrol Leader, and as a teenager, I was an assistant Brownie Leader. I joined a committee to create a youth centre in my town, and often initiated new projects with that group. I made a lot of friends through that committee, and they came to rely on me as the person to go to for advice, or just a sounding board when they needed to talk. Even now at age thirty, friends come to me when they want straightforward, honest advice.

The flip side of my honesty and strength is that I can be blunt and sometimes bossy, but I'm able to acknowledge this. I try to keep myself from getting too pushy. My friends know that they can be equally honest with me, and I appreciate that. My drive for volunteerism has remained strong as well. I run two singles' social clubs, a support group for sleep disorders, am a member of Scouting, and an all-purpose volunteer fund raiser and cage cleaner for the Humane Society. People ask me for help, and I step right up to the job. At times this has been overwhelming, but in recent years I've learned how to say no sometimes as not to overburden myself. I always need to have some kind of project to focus my energy on, someone or something to take care of, and I think this comes from my early years of always having to keep watch and look after everyone else at home.

As an adult, what are the most difficult aspects of your relationship with your mother? Are they completely different from those your struggled with as a child or is it a continuation of the same?

To a large extent, the struggles with my mother are the same as when I was a child. We still have a power struggle where my mother tries to show her capabilities by refusing to take any of my suggestions. Last year, my father passed away, and she became violent. I had to leave town and for the first time in forty years, she was alone. I had to learn how to step back and allow her to make her own mistakes, although I'm always afraid she'll do something to physically harm herself or someone else. I've done everything I can to let doctors and others know what to watch out for. However, the law prevents anyone from intervening until she actually causes harm to herself or someone else.

I try to humour her and show her love from a distance in an attempt to keep myself from being drawn back into the whirlwind of confusion, control, and rage my mother lives in. We talk on the phone a couple of times a week, and I visit her once a month. I worry, but have accepted that I can't protect her. I think that's something every parent struggles with.

How do you cope as an adult?

Now that I've moved to a different city, I'm focusing on the self-care I ignored for so long. I got a gym membership and go several times each week. I do yoga and take belly dance lessons. I joined a choir and several social groups here. I live with my sister now, and we get along very well. I don't know where I would be without her love and support.
I have fantastic friends and plenty of volunteer projects. I have two cats that I love dearly. I also see a psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder, and have taken cognitive behavioural therapy to deal with the trauma of the past. People who live close to my mother have my phone number and have promised to check up on her regularly. My mom and I are now developing into two separate entities, instead of one constant struggle.

How has living in the shadow of mental illness made you stronger? Can you share the positives that have emerged for you as a unique individual? Has it shaped your views on motherhood and parenting?

Growing up with a very volatile person has given me great patience when dealing with others. I've always had to figure out the underlying meaning of things--why my mother said and did the things she did--so I'm very attuned to the things people don't say out loud. I'm a caregiver and am very mentally and emotionally strong, and I lend this strength to others who come to me for help.


Although I like children, I've decided not to have any. I've been a parent for more than twenty years, and my mother is still very young and has many more years to go. Now is the time for me to live my own life. I appreciate the difficulty of being a mother, and that while it's very rewarding in many ways, it's the biggest commitment you can ever make. Other kids got their parenting lessons from carrying an egg or a bag of sugar or a robotic infant. I got my parenting experience from being a parent to my own mother, and it was a very steep learning curve.

What are the top three things we can do for children who may be in this lonely quagmire?

Teachers, neighbours, relatives, and anyone who may become aware that something is wrong should report the situation to Children's Aid. Often the other parent is too wrapped up in dealing with the mentally ill parent to give the child the necessary care and attention required. If a social services agency checks in on the family regularly and monitored the children's mental health from inside the home, a lot of trauma can be prevented. I would like to see support groups made available for children of mentally ill parents. Individual counselling is helpful only if the child feels understood, and in my experience, children are not given credit for what they really know. Even now as an adult, I would like to see a support group for adult children of mentally ill parents. This would help us deal with the lingering effects of our childhood.

If you could say anything to the world about being the child of a mentally ill parent, what would it be?

About being a child in the situation: Please make it your business to reach out and find out what's really happening at home. A child in such a situation is very isolated and feels that nobody could ever understand. What is most needed is a healthy adult role model and a place to just be a kid without adult pressures.

About being an adult child: Please don't ask why we bother having relationships with our parents. Just like a parent unconditionally loves and supports a mentally ill child, a child will often unconditionally love and support a mentally ill parent.

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