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6527212 April 14, 2012

Cancer Baby Momma: An Aberration Story

It has absolutely strengthened my family. Our love for each other is right out there in the open now.

I've thought a lot about cancer lately. Besides being a writer and an artist, I'm also a consultant within the pharmaceutical industry. As part of that work, I've recently visited quite a few cancer treatment centers. I've walked past folks sitting in chemo chairs in Washington. In a Florida hospice grief center, I've been shown a small, dark room that lights up with fluorescent messages children have written to the moms and dads they miss. In a center I visited in Illinois, I saw a giant gong. Each time a patient reaches remission, the center invites friends and family for a gong ceremony to signify the courageous battle that was fought and won.
When I was growing up, a cancer diagnosis was thought to be a death sentence. Although the landscape has certainly changed and progressed, the "C" word is still one of our greatest fears, and can very well lead to death. I'm betting that very few of us remain untouched by cancer. Through my work related to breakthrough cancer pain, I've come to appreciate how even those fortunate enough to make it through that fight are struck with a debilitating and life-changing aberration. No matter what the outcome, cancer changes those whom it strikes.

Considering what I've recently learned about living with cancer and the associated treatments, I can't begin to imagine what it might be like to also have a baby growing side-by-side with that potential killer, all encased in the confines of my body. An expanding baby needs care and nourishment while spreading cancer must be eradicated with radiation and poisonous chemicals. How can a healthy baby result? Is it possible?

Sandi, the newest member of the Aberration Nation has lived through this nightmare and can shed light on the mind-blowing combination. Her story makes the aches, pains, and nausea of my pregnancies seem like a fragrant stroll through the Shreveport Rose Center. Sandi is truly a survivor who has courageously embraced her greatest challenges. Like a bouquet of roses, she holds one of the most precious outcomes lovingly in her arms.

You rece
ived a cancer diagnosis while pregnant. Can you tell us what happened?
My family and I went through a large move two hours away from our relatives. During this move I was feeling very winded and tired. I had been wheezing a lot and just having an all around difficult time even moving one box. I had been having issues for awhile but during the move it got a lot worse. After getting into the new home, I took a pregnancy test and it came back positive. My first thought was, Well, I knew I was feeling very sick ... I was having issues breathing. I got winded walking up just a few stairs or even simply talking. Having conversations wiped me out and caused me to pant. I'd been told constantly that I have thyroid issues, and tried my hardest to believe that was the issue. But I didn't know how I could carry a pregnancy to term considering how sick I felt. So we went back to the doctor. Exactly two weeks after finding out I was pregnant, I was told I had Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

What were your first thoughts when faced with the cancer diagnosis? How did your pregnancy impact your initial reaction and attitude? Did your attitude change in any way throughout the course of your pregnancy?

When the doctor first said the word lymphoma, I was pretty much in shock. I thought to myself that this could not be happening ... because I was pregnant. I couldn't have cancer. I was having such a terrible time simply breathing though that it was honestly hard to sit and think about all the details too much. I just wanted to be able to breathe again without it hurting. I also knew I wanted my baby to be safe. I was questioning whether there was any possible way that my baby and I could get through this together. I honestly became much more concerned for the baby because I figured she would have the hardest time making it through any potential drug treatments or surgeries. I was very confused. I hadn't even heard of this happening before. My attitude changed a lot during my pregnancy because I was doing well. The chemotherapy was working, and all of my doctor's appointments for the baby showed she was growing and progressing normally. I honestly looked towards her birth as a symbol of getting through it all. She was the happy ending, the good result at the end of all the pain.

Pregnancy in itself can bring emotional ups and downs, and of course, physical issues. Was this compounded by your diagnosis, and if so, how did you cope?

Ironically, I think that after going through the initial diagnosis and first two or three chemotherapy treatments, the pregnancy gave me strange comfort. I never felt alone. I always knew she was with me. I was going through something that takes lives all the time while growing a new life inside me. We often think of cancer as something that takes lives. We certainly never think of a new life beginning during it. She gave me hope when I really should have been terrified. Sometimes I was. I certainly broke down a few times but I tried to not let myself be too scared. I knew the fear would eat me alive if I let it. As far as physical issues, I was very tired all the time and very weak as well. Chemotherapy and pregnancy alone both cause these things. Together it was just that much worse. I spent a lot of time in bed and was put on bed rest towards the end of the pregnancy.

How common is this situation?

I've been told that one in 1000 pregnancies has cancer occur at the same time. It's pretty rare. Actually, in a lot of these situations you can delay treatment, but in my case I could not. I had to start in the first trimester which is almost unheard of. I was ten weeks along.

Today we have more options than in the past. What choices were presented to you, and how did you feel about them?

Honestly my choices were slim because I myself was not doing well. The specialist I saw told me I should have a therapeutic abortion because they didn't know what could possibly happen to the baby, and it would be better for me emotionally to not have to deal with a child who had problems. My life was not in danger by keeping the pregnancy at all. I was told I would not last three weeks so I had no choice but to start chemotherapy as soon as possible. I couldn't wait until the second or third trimester as they normally recommend. I didn't have that kind of time, so we started treatments at 10 weeks. I was able to do the radiation after her birth, which was nice. I was supposed to be induced at 37 weeks to give my body time to heal before radiation but she came on her own at 36 weeks.

Did your children understand what was going on in your life? If so, how did this impact the family dynamic?

My older children knew I was very sick at first but didn't know why. They knew I was having a baby and were happy about it but didn't fully understand what was wrong with me. At the suggestion of a counselor at the oncology office, we told them I had cancer. We were told to not fear the "C" word and to just be honest with our children and we agreed. I didn't see my girls much in the beginning because I as so sick. I became very lonely. They were in the same house but I didn't have enough energy to even hug them. It was very difficult.

When faced with life's aberrations, many people who seem to have tons of support can't manage to cope, while some folks with little to no support manage to survive. Did the support of family and friends make the difference for you, or do you believe your own inner resolve ultimately brought you through?

I really believe the support of my husband and children are what got me through. We had just moved away from all of our other family and friends. We were two hours from them, and honestly I didn't see any of them much at all. They were afraid to call me because of my breathing problems. I felt slightly abandoned by them but I understood their fears. However, my husband was by my side day and night caring for me. His job allowed him to stay with me and still get paid, which was so wonderful. My mother-in-law came and helped out during radiation treatments. My children were there to help, and did a lot of growing up during that time. I really think the love and support given to me mostly by my husband helped me through. I tried to voice the what ifs and he wouldn't hear it. I had no choice but to get better. He made it clear. I loved it and I needed to hear it.

How did the the story end and what did you learn from this life-threatening situation? Do you believe that you and your family are stronger now for having had to face such difficult times together?

I had my final chemotherapy at 32 weeks. I did get some preterm contractions with this chemo and the one before it. I spent a night in the hospital and they managed to stop the contractions. At 36 weeks my water broke. I went to the hospital and was Life Flighted to a children's hospital two hours away. I gave birth to a healthy baby girl, 6 lbs. 3 oz and 18 inches long, on November 17th, 2007. She didn't require NICU care ... she was healthy! I was doing okay, too. I had radiation about two weeks after her birth every day for a month and got a clear PET scan on February 8th, 2008. I was declared in remission. My baby girl is now 15 months old, and I just celebrated one year of being cancer free. It has absolutely strengthened my family. Our love for each other is right out there in the open now. I know how very much my husband loves me and I do not take one day or second for granted that I have with my family. My older daughters had to grow up a lot during this time. We all changed and we are all stronger for it I think.

Did staring death in the face change your life? If so, how has it changed?

Honestly I was very close to death, but at the time I just wanted to feel better. I couldn't imagine not being able to breathe anymore or having the pain involved with breathing. I wanted it to stop one way or another. It's not so scary at that moment--you just want the pain to stop. I got very scared later and realized I didn't want to leave my family. Most of all I want to see my daughters grow up and I certainly don't want them to forget me. I try to do things with them and show them how very much I love them because I realize we aren't guaranteed anything. We don't know how much time we'll have so I want to leave a lasting impression in the lives of my children.

There seems to be so much support for Cancer victims this days, which is heart warming. Is there enough? If not, what else can we do?

I do believe there is a lot of support for cancer patients out there and I love it. I think it's wonderful. I think that cancer during pregnancy is not as widely recognized as say just breast cancer alone. I think it's something that women don't have enough information on. Women feel alone and helpless. I want to spread the word that there is hope. You can get well and keep your baby, too. It's possible. That message is not widely known.

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6527212 December 17, 2009

Military Life: An Aberration Story

Learning how to lead and then leading American soldiers has been the greatest privilege and honor of my life.

I was born on a naval base and was shipped off to Japan as a six-month-old. My family has a strong military history, yet as part of a downsizing in the 70's, my disappointed father was forced out of that life. I was about five-years-old at the time. His dreams of serving were cut short, and Dad went on to have a long and successful career as a high school administrator. Still, the memories and remnants of military service lingered for my brother, John, my cousins, and myself.

Have you ever wondered what military life is really like? My cousin, Army Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Hall, visited recently, so I had the opportunity to pick his brain. Despite the prospect of war, being an officer in the military sounded so attractive that I ended up trying to recruit my daughter and her boyfriend! Given today's poor job market and our global issues, if one is brave enough, it's a worthwhile and rewarding option.

With all that said, it's not easy. The one thing we all know about military careers is their potential to separate families for long periods of time. That's just one of the down sides. So who are these brave people who choose to take on separation and, in many cases, war? Why do they commit their lives to serving their country--to serving us? Are facing those built-in aberrations really worth it?

I'm sure there are a million different answers to these questions. But to get an glimpse into that world, I decided to ask Jerry to share his story. He agreed to help us understand some of the sacrifices and rewards.

You joined the military right out of high scho
ol, which shaped your life in a major way. What inspired you to take that track, and how did your recruitment play out?

Our grandfather (Air Force Colonel Felton Hall) and your father (Navy Officer Bill Hall) were major influences that inspired me to join the military, as well as what I think was a generational urge to serve. I say generational because I think a lot of us who grew up in the 70s and early 80’s did so with the legacy of the Vietnam War (or perhaps the desire to overcome the legacy of the Vietnam War) and the experience of living during the Cold War. I wanted to serve in the military from an early age as a result of all those influences.

Going back to my grandfather, one of my earliest memories I have is of him in his uniform, the insignia of his rank shining in the sun. I couldn’t have been more than a year or two old because I think this is when we still lived in Michigan; my parents have a picture of me taking a bath in the kitchen sink with a carton of milk on the counter from Selfridge Air Force Base.

Later I can remember going up in your attic with your brother, John, to check out your father’s old helmet, flight suit and ceremonial dress sword.

My “recruitment” was less a recruitment than me going to the Marine Corps Reserve recruiter between my junior and senior year of High School and enlisting! My recruiter convinced me to apply for a Marine Corps ROTC scholarship at the same, which I ended up winning and using at Texas A&M for a year.

Was the initial military training as difficult as civilians hear it is? As a young man, do you feel that it changed you or your attitudes? If so, how and why?

Because I had experienced a year in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M as a “fish” or freshman, which was basically sanctioned hazing, I found Army Basic Training to be a breeze. In fact, it was so easy the Drill Sergeants made me the trainee Platoon Guide, which meant I was in charge of my platoon when the Drill Sergeants weren’t around.

Military training and service dramatically changed me and my attitudes. I was always fairly intelligent and athletic. I had a lot of potential, but I did not understand how leadership is more about duty and responsibility to others than it is about your own desires. I learned to live the Army Values of Loyalty, Duty, Honor, Respect, Selfless Service, Integrity and Personal Courage while growing as a person in the military. Learning how to lead and then leading American soldiers has been the greatest privilege and honor of my life. It was also a great experience to be a part of the Army as it reinvented itself at the end of the post-Vietnam era (I enlisted in 1982 and went on active duty in 1984), won the Cold War, the First Gulf War, and then went on to become the great organization it is today.

You went on to become an officer in the Army. Can you share a little of your military experience and what you’re doing now?

Here is a summary of my officer career:

1992-1994: After the First Gulf War, I went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia and was promoted from Staff Sergeant to 2nd Lieutenant. After OCS, I went to the Armor Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, KY, then reported back to Fort Benning to be a Tank Platoon Leader (four M1 Tanks) in the Infantry Brigade stationed there. The last year, I was the executive officer for my Tank Company (three platoons of M1 tanks). This time was devoted mostly to training my platoon, then company, for combat, including many training center “rotations” to Fort Irwin in Death Valley and Fort Polk in Louisiana for mock combat.

1994-1996: For my last two years at Fort Benning, I was the Executive Officer for one of the infantry companies in the Parachute Infantry Battalion that teaches the Basic Airborne, Jumpmaster and Pathfinder courses. This was an awesome job! I have 65 parachute jumps and completed both Jumpmaster and Pathfinder Schools. I also got to go to the 1995 D-Day re-enactment, complete French airborne school, and then jump into the same Drop Zone that my battalion jumped into on D-Day. No matter what people say about the French, the ones in Normandy still love us!

1996-1998: After being promoted to Captain, I went back to Fort Knox for the Armor Advanced Course to prepare me for commanding an Armor Company or a Cavalry Troop. After graduating from the course, the Army let me go back to school to finish my BA. I got my BA in History from the nearby University of Louisville. I was lucky there was a visiting professor whose expertise was military history, so the degree was fun. Plus I was a much better student at 31 than I was at 18!

1998-2000: After finishing my degree, I went to Hurlburt Field in Destin, Florida for the Joint Firepower Control Class (learned how to call in close air support). I took my wife, Anne, with me to this class. Destin is nice! Then we moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado after begging, pleading, whining, etc. to get back to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the same unit I was with during Desert Storm, and the premiere armor unit in the Army. Anyway, I convinced my assignments officer to send me, so I worked for a year as the Squadron (Battalion) adjutant, then took command of F Troop (Fox Troop; a cavalry troop has 128 soldiers in two Tank Platoons, two Scout Platoons, a Mortar Section and the Headquarters Platoon) and deployed it to Bosnia for peacekeeping duty in Brcko, Bosnia-Hercegovina. That was a great experience. We did a lot of good there helping Muslims and Croats move back to areas they were driven out of during the war (some Serbs too, although because my area was largely taken over by the Serbs, it was the Muslims and Croats who needed help returning).

2001-2004: After coming back from Bosnia, Anne and I took a short vacation to the Caribbean on a Windjammer cruise ship (they are actually sail boats), which was a blast. Then I went for a short six week staff officer school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, followed by reporting to the University of Nevada, in Reno, to be an ROTC instructor. For one year, I taught the ROTC juniors leadership, and was the operations officer for the battalion (it included UNLV). After that I became the recruiting officer and taught US military history to the cadets and the university at large. Teaching the military history course was very enjoyable, and once I have recovered from getting my Master’s degree, I’ll probably go on to get a PhD in History so I can teach again. We had our daughter, Gillian, in 2002, which was nice because I was able to go to all of Anne’s doctor’s appointments and be there when she was born--which isn’t generally the case in the Army. Oh, and I got promoted to Major in January, 2003.

2004-2007: While I was in ROTC, I came to a point in my career where I could choose to do something different than my “basic branch” of armor/cavalry. This was a hard decision, because I loved being in a combat arms branch, and loved cavalry even more, because it’s truly the tip of the spear. Anyway, after a lot of thought, and because I felt it was time to focus on family, I chose to change my career path to Simulations Operations, a very new branch. So after ROTC, I went to United States Pacific Command in Honolulu, where I was responsible for running the annual exercise that trains the entire Pacific Command’s Commander and Staff, as well as all of the service staffs (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines). We use huge federations of simulations and simulators to put it all together, so we can simulate warfare from underwater to space.

This was a fantastic job, mostly because not only did I get to work with state- of-the-art simulations and simulators, but during the exercise I was also in the control (or umpire) group, and got to make up scenarios and, as Anne has observed, got to be the “Dungeon Master.” We also took vacations on the neighbor islands of Kauai and Hawaii (the Big Island) while we were there (the military has cabins on the beach on Kauai and in Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii). We were there for the earthquake in 2006, and the near miss by Hurricane Flossie in 2007 (no problems).

2007: So after doing simulations at Pacific Command for three years and getting joint credit (important for future promotions), I went to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth for a year to learn more about higher level Army leadership. I started my MS in Emergency and Disaster Management while I was there. It was a nice time, the school is more relaxed that it was in the Cold War because people are deployed so much nowadays that they changed the school so it was more like a break. In addition to the basic curriculum, I earned a certification in Space Operations (mostly satellites and ballistic missile defense), and took classes on China and Chinese, because the Army was sending me right back to Hawaii to work in a missile defense unit.

2008-present: We moved right back to Hawaii after my school at Fort Leavenworth. In fact, we live right next to the house we used to live in, and Gillian goes to the same school and even has some of the same friends. I will probably stay in Hawaii for as long as I can. We really love it here. Gillian has a medical condition that requires special care, and right now the Army Hospital here in Hawaii or the Naval Hospital in Norfolk Virginia, are the best places for her, so we’ll probably stay here two-five more years ... than maybe go to Virginia. I now work in the Pacific’s missile defense command, so I do the simulations and “Dungeon Mastering” for all of the major missile defense exercises here in the Pacific, including Japan, Korea and Australia, which is why I travel so much (about six months in the last year). I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and finished my MS in December, 2008.

In talking with you and learning more about the military, it seems that they take care of there own in many wonderful ways. How has this changed over the years?

The military has gotten much better about taking care of families over the 25 years that I have been in. When I first came in the joke was, “If the Army wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one!” Now there are full-time family support specialists assigned to all units, and there are many programs and a lot of emphasis on taking care of soldiers and their families.

As expected, you've often had to leave your family for long periods of time. You've also had to participate and lead teams in combat. These are certainly aberrations of life; tough situations you've had to bear due to choices you've made. Has it been worth it?

Yes, it has been worth it, although I am glad that we had my daughter later in my career, especially now that I have switched to my new career field. Just the traveling I do for training and exercises has had an impact on her. I am in the Army and have deployed for combat and peacekeeping, but I have been amazed at the resiliency of our young soldiers and their families over the past eight years of constant war.

How to you cope with being away from your family? Do you have particular strategies for that or do you just sort of suffer through it?

Fortunately with modern technology, I can usually talk to my wife and daughter a few minutes every day on the phone or on the web. The military has “morale calls” where you can use military phones to connect to civilian lines from overseas and talk to your family for free. I also always try to bring home souvenirs and gifts from the places I visit.

How did you cope with combat? Is it something a soldier can ever get used to, or does it continue to be difficult?

I guess I was blessed with the “no stress” gene; combat did not phase me. But my combat experience was in Desert Storm, which was a very short war (only about four days of actual combat, although I was deployed for a total of seven months), so it’s hard to compare to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers have to put up with combat stress every day for a year or more. The good news is that Army has also come a long way in how it deals with stress and its effects on soldiers and their families.

Has it been difficult over the years to maintain close bonds with family and friends due to your military career?

Yes, although that may be more of an excuse on my part! When I first joined there were no PCs, Internet, cell phones, etc., and international calls were expensive, so I pretty much disappeared to all but my nuclear family. Case in point is you! We hadn’t seen each other for about 25 years when I visited last month!

Who are your heroes and why?

Tough…my wife and daughter, and every military family, are definitely heroes for all they do to support my service. Also every soldier, sailor, airman, marine and coastguardsman is a hero…because they choose to serve our country and others at significant personal sacrifice. Trying to pick individual heroes is hard because I know (and knew) so many, including many who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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6527212 August 17, 2009

All in the Family: An Aberration Story

I love my life and all the family members in it.

When I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s, we were still watching Leave It To Beaver, dressing up in our Sunday best for church, and thinking that children of divorced parents were the only ones writing curse words in the baseball dugout at the park. Those were supposed to be the 'good ole' days. The definition of family was fairly standard: a mom, a dad, and a few kids, all spawned by the resident parents after the wedding night. Most of us seemed to fit that definition; in my neck of the woods, those who didn't were swept under the proverbial rug in one way or another. It's amazing how much energy, and pain, was spent on living up to that definition. For some, it came naturally. For others, it was hell.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all just exist in a cookie cutter world where everything was just peachy creamy? Where everyone effortlessly upheld their obligations, and we all loved one another because we were just so perfect and wonderful? Maybe. I'm not sure because I don't think that exists if we're being honest. In some ways, it's not a bad dream to wish for, but it somehow ignores certain levels of creativity and the amazing individuality of our existence. It sucks the unique dry.

Years ago, living in the Leave it to Beaver aftermath of our parents' world, there were so many things that were still "hush-hush" compared to now. Those who were willing to stand up and chose a life that was a little outside the normal definition were ground breakers in my book. Too many of the avenues these ground-breakers chose continue to be criticized today in some corners of our society. Certain choices, behaviors, etc. are still frowned upon, even if behind closed doors. And I'm not just talking about the obvious ones; there are still too many adults struggling to live up to impossible, unrealistic, or counter intuitive standards imposed upon them by others.

It makes me so sad.

But then maybe, like my guest today, Lisa, I'm overly focused on how to make everyone around me happy. When a child has an invisible brand across their back that says, "Someone important in my life wasn't able to love me like they should," regardless of the circumstance, it potentially impacts their life. Even when we understand the reasons, and have coped with them, we don't forget. The best we can do is focus on all the incredible love surrounding us. That's what Lisa has managed to do. She's a great example of how focusing on the positive is the best medicine for what ails us. And furthermore, her family seems to be composed of a bunch of heroes who understood years ago that family is just a word, and it's love that matters most.

You were part of an 'in family' adoption. Can you explain what that means and the circumstance?


First of all, I would like to say that all my answers are my impressions of what happened. Facts may be skewed due to family lore and what I always grew up believing. When my family reads this, they may tell me that some things in my accounting may not be accurate. So, having said that, let's go on this journey.

I was adopted by my birth mother's sister. As I understand it, back then it was frowned upon to do in family adoptions but whoever it is that took care of such things allowed it although I understand they had to go through the same process as a regular adoption.

When my birth mother got pregnant with me, as I understand it, my father decided he couldn't handle that responsibility so he left her. She went home to have me, and my birth mother's sister and her husband decided to adopt me. Family legend has it that my (adopted) sister said she wanted me as her sister so they adopted me. I'm sure there was way more to it than that but I like that legend.

Growing up, did you know the circumstances of your adoption? If so, how did you feel about it? How was it presented to you?

I knew from a very early age that I was adopted. I don't ever remember being shocked to hear it. As I recall, my grandfather and I were in his old station wagon, and I don't know if he thought I was asleep or knew I was awake, but he told me that I was adopted and that I was loved and always, always my family wanted me, but that the circumstances of my birth didn't allow me to be with my birth mother (he put in in little kid words but those are the meanings I gleaned from it). So, I always knew. And, I remember one time, I was at the Dr.'s office and on my chart it said "adopted" and I asked my adoptive Mom what that meant and she said "Let's go get an Icee!" Pretty much, it's the only time that I remember that I ever, as a child, asked anything about my birth or parentage. Hey, I got an Icee out of the deal, but I don't remember her talking to me about the adoption.

I assume you know your birth mother. How does your love for your birth mother and your adopted mother differ? How are they similar?

I have always felt close to my birth mother, Brownie. I always knew we were tied in a special bond that could never be broken. I spent summers with her and went on family vacations with her (she's remarried and has another girl from that marriage) and have many things in common with her, including, among other things, looking very much like her.

I have and will always have an inexpressible gratitude my adoptive mother, Ethel. She taught me all the things mothers teach their daughters (except they always wear clean underwear--that's for her in case she reads this--it's a family joke). She instilled in me a love for God and family. She taught me to love myself (that's a pretty good one right there) and to respect others and always do my best, no matter what. I never felt that I didn't belong where I was. There was never any differentiation between me or my big sister as far as love and devotion. I was never second best to her.

I love them both and am truly grateful to both for different reasons. Ethel, for the reasons I stated above, and Brownie because she was wise and strong enough to allow me to be raised by people who loved me unconditionally.

I love and have always loved Brownie, but even though I know I'm her daughter, there are some things that you don't get from a mother you don't live with. Like, while I appreciate her input and insight into things, and take them into consideration, Ethel's opinion will always carry more weight with me. I always call Brownie when I have news to share, etc., but as for the "mom" things, it's always Ethel. It's not that I love Brownie less, it's just that some things are more mom oriented, and or those things I communicate with Ethel more.

Have your thoughts and emotions about your situation changed as you matured? If so, how?

When I was younger I thought I was a honeymoon baby and that my father just got overwhelmed with all his new responsibilities. While that wasn't okay or excusable, I dealt with that information as I could. When I learned (later) that my birth parents had been married for five years when I was conceived, it was a bit of a shock. My feelings were hurt that my father didn't want to have anything to do with me--a person he helped create. And how must Brownie have felt? He was willing to throw both of us away due to whatever it was inside of him that couldn't allow him to love either of us.

However, at the time I found this out, I had an adoptive father, a step-father, and an uncle (whom I have always a great fondness for--essentially another father figure) and I felt I had enough daddies who loved me for who I was and as I was. I didn't need to waste time lamenting the one who donated his DNA to me just because he was was ignorant and didn't know what he was missing. I wasn't missing anything in the daddy department.

How is the relationship between your birth mother and her sister, your adoptive mom? Has it remained consistent over the years?

As far as I know, they have remained the best of friends over the years and I have only seen them close.

I do remember one time we all went camping, the entire clan. At that time, I had my first son and he was the only grandchild. Somehow something happened and from what I heard, there was a "I'm the grandmother" come-to-Jesus meeting between Ethel and Brownie and that's all I know about that incident. I wasn't even aware it was going on at the time. I did realize that something was up but didn't know it involved me. I've never had the nerve to ask about it. It wasn't really my business ... or at least I didn't think so.

Looking back, do you feel that the best decisions were made in your family with regard to the adoption?

Without question, yes. I can't imagine my life any other way. Really, I am blessed with the best of both worlds. I have a loving mother, a loving "birth" mother whom I know and love, a sister who asked to be my sister, and another sister who, when she found out about me, embraced me as her sister, no questions asked. How could my life get any better? You know when you're learning math and you have those circles and they are intertwined? There's some in Circle A, some in Circle B and then there are some in both? I am the one that's in both and I embrace that. I appreciate that.

Being either a parent or child in an adoption situation often makes one contemplate what love is, and what makes a family. What are your thoughts on this?

I've never questioned what a family is. It's at least one parent who loves you no matter what. It doesn't have to be a birth parent--just someone who can love you unequivocally. Ethel did (does) that for me.

Has being adopted impacted the key relationships in your life. Has this changed over time?

I think that my need to please people (thinking that will help them like me more) probably comes from being adopted. Always trying to keep things light, especially in tense situations probably stems from that. I think that, in my life, I've had a father throw me away (essentially) pretty much. It can't get much worse than that as far as feeling unloved. So, anything I can do to keep someone from feeling like they can "throw me away," i.e. please them, make them smile, love them unconditionally (sometimes undeservedly, as in the case of my first husband--hard lesson learned there!) etc., is my "raison d'etre". It's not conscious, in the forefront of my mind day in and day out, but looking at my life, I tend to try to be lovable. And my self-analysis tells me that this is probably why.

As I get older, I'm learning that it's IMPOSSIBLE to make everyone happy. There are just going to be people who don't like me, no matter what, and that I will live through that. It's taken me awhile, but, I'm getting there.

Although thrilled to become a sister, my daughter (who was adopted by my husband) became quite curious and concerned when I was pregnant with her sister. I believe she feared that her dad would love her sister more than her. She was 10 at the time. Based on your experience, can you provide adoptive parents with any tips or insight into how best to explain adoption to their children?

You know, I don't have any answers. All I can say is honesty is always the best policy. Age appropriate honesty. Make sure there is no differentiation in the way you treat the children. Unfortunately, ten is old enough to see how parents (naturally) dote on a baby, therefore, natural feelings of jealousy will emerge. However, I would buffer those feelings with stories of when she was a baby. Such as "you know when you were a baby we did this with you, too" and just make sure she knows you still love her. You cannot show/tell a sibling, adopted or not, that too much.

Someone once said something to me like "adopted children are special because they were chosen" or something to that effect. It's true, I feel special because, as I said earlier, my sister said she wanted me for her sister, and that offsets that "my father threw me away" mentality to some degree but reminders are always welcome for an adoptee.

I'm lucky in that I had Ethel who was willing to take me in as her own and I never felt I didn't belong there. Bob, Ethel's husband, loved me to the end of his life as his own and often told me the luckiest day in his life was the day I came into it. Henry, Ethel's second husband, treated me as his own and although Henry was tough and expected much, I knew he loved me. Brownie has always been a constant source of love and understanding and her house has always been a safe haven for me, no matter where she lived. And Brownie's second husband, Howard has, in his own way, shown me that he loves me. He sat down with me every night when I was taking college algebra and helped me with my homework. And, my sister? Try sisters. At this point in my life, I really don't differentiate between them. I have two sisters. One I grew up with and the other I watched grow up. I am blessed to be loved, as a sister, by both. And, as if that weren't enough, I have two great brothers-in-law and they both know the situation, but, again, love me as their own and I love them.

Life is good for this adoptee. I love my life and all the family members in it.

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6527212 March 15, 2009

Sh-t Hits a Homeless Fan: An Aberration Story

... all of our experiences, good and bad, have the power to enrich our lives.

How many of us have personally known homeless folks? If you're like me, you may have passed them on the streets of New York, Nashville, or Los Angeles, looking tired, dirty, and hungry. You may have heard stories about folks fallen prey to sad sack stories of the homeless needing money to visit dying mothers, or to buy food for their kids when all they really wanted was the next high. Let's face it, we're all a little uneasy about offering a helping hand because, unfortunately, we live in a dishonest world.

I'll admit I haven't always been the best judge of character. I was born believing that everyone is good at heart. I've suffered many a disappointment and heartbreak by finding out the hard way how untrue that can be ... including lessons learned about my own nature. With that said, I still hope and believe that every bum, stripper, burnt out wrestler, and dirty, scary looking teen out there isn't inherently bad. I look into their eyes and search for a kernel of good, something deserving of my hope, love, and understanding.

Besides being born naive, I also do this because I can't forget the moments when people (some strangers and some closer to home) have looked at me with disgust and hatred as if to say, "You deserve what you got!"
Maybe I did, and maybe the bum I saw during my recent visit to Times Square did, too, but maybe, just maybe, there are times when a storm catches us, spinning us out of control, and flailing and grasping to steady ourselves, feeling sick and confused, we just do the best damn thing we can. And our best isn't that great by the world's standards, but it's the choice we grab hold of to pull ourselves through. If we're smart and full of heart, sometimes the circumstances we land in can show us the final path out.

Well, I'm pleased to report that parts of our world are still honest. The newest member of Aberration Nation found herself in a destructive relationship with two young daughters, and she made a choice. Margay did the best she could at the time. She got out of a storm but ended up homeless. Then she was hit with a few other aberrations. Like many of us, she was forced to deal with several life-altering situations at once. The shit hit the homeless fan, so to speak. When you read her story I'm sure you'll agree that, under the circumstances, she did a fantastic job of leading her family to a better place. Margay's story shows us that not all who are homeless are heartless. When armed with the right amount of determination, any system can work.

Many of us have more than one aberration. If we're lucky, we get to deal with these one at a time; however, life doesn't usually work that way. At a certain point in your life, you were hit with several overlapping issues. Can you tell us what happened?

Well, after a series of events that started with me losing my job after 9/11 and ended with me living in a homeless shelter with my two young girls, I found myself facing two very frightening events for any mother. My younger daughter and I both fell ill and went through a series of tests and doctor visits and hospitalizations before we discovered what was wrong with us. the strange thing is that the two conditions, while very different, ran parallel to each other, and still do, at times. My daughter was hospitalized first, in February of 2003, with a stomach problem that, we learned at a later time, was linked to a mental health diagnosis that wouldn't come until much later. While she was in the hospital, the symptoms that I had been feeling for at least a month before--numbness, tingling sensations, the inability to hold something in my hand for more than five minutes without suddenly dropping it--culminated in me taking a terrible spill outside of the hospital on my way home one night. Still, I wasn't able to get to my own doctor until my daughter was out of the hospital. Several appointments with three different doctors and a hospitalization later, I was told that what I had was Multiple Sclerosis. That was in the Spring. That June, we received the devastating news that my younger daughter had bipolar disorder. It would be five more years before it was determined that she also had Asperger's Syndrome.

How did you initially cope with all the diagnosis for you and your younger daughter while homeless?

It was difficult because there is no privacy in a shelter. You may have your own room to go to, but still, everyone knew everyone else's business and everyone liked to gossip, or so it seemed. But, in what I now perceive as a life-saving stroke of intuition, when we first entered the shelter, I had arranged with my counselor to get therapists (a separate one for each, another good idea, as it turned out) for my daughters and myself, just to cope with the struggles of being in a shelter. As it turned out, that move saved our sanity. Having someone to talk to, outside of the shelter, about everything that was bothering me, including life at the shelter and all that entailed, was crucial. I think that is what kept me from giving in to despair. That, and visiting my mother as often as I could. She kept me grounded, kept me from giving up by reminding me what I had to lose if I didn't push through this terrible period in my life. Another thing that made it difficult was the debilitating symptoms of my condition. I was tired all the time, my legs were totally numb before the steroid treatments, and I just wanted to sleep my life away. So of course, those were the times when my younger daughter had her worst episodes with the bipolar disorder and often had to go in for psych consults. Eventually, they put her in an A.R.T. program for a few weeks, but in my opinion, that didn't do anything to help her. And through all of this, I was trying to give my older daughter as much stability as I could, under the circumstances. It was the most difficult time in my life.

You're no longer homeless. How were you able to pull yourself out of that situation?

One of the requirements of living in the shelter is that you have to send out applications to every housing authority and low income facility on the packet they provide you. I did so diligently. Still, I was in the shelter for about fourteen months before an opening became available in a family housing project in my old home town. I have since moved on to better circumstances, but I am so grateful that I had that opportunity to start to rebuild my life.

Many people think of homeless people as lazy or mentally deranged. Did you happen to meet other homeless folks, and if so, what did you learn about them? Did your own ideas about homelessness change after being in those shoes yourself and meeting others like yourself?

The shelter that I lived in housed fourteen families in total, so there were a lot of people there and although some might have fit the preconceived notions about the homeless, the majority didn't. The majority were people just like me; people who, through circumstances beyond their control, found themselves in need of a place to stay while they got back on their feet. I have to admit, my own opinion might have been colored by other's perceptions at one point, but I soon learned differently. I met a lot of wonderful people at the shelter who were just victims of a bad turn of luck and wanted to do whatever they could to get beyond it and make a better life for their families. So I guess you could say that my perception did change. Nowadays, whenever anyone makes a derogatory remark about the homeless, I am quick to defend them and to point out that everyone is just one paycheck away from being homeless. This is especially true in today's economy...

How did your younger daughter come to be diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome?

Well, we had been dealing with the bipolar diagnosis for about five years at that point and she had gone through a series of therapists/psychiatrists in those years. When we moved out of the shelter, I set her up with one who was closer to where we lived and who also was willing to meet with her clients in school. She was with that therapist for three years before the therapist decided to go into private practice and referred us to another therapist within the same agency. After meeting with my daughter for about three months, that therapist, in conjunction with the psychiatrist, presented the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, in addition to the bipolar disorder.

How were you able to cope with this new kink to the family system? Did you find the strength to take deep breaths and properly cope? If so, how did you muster that strength? If not, how did you eventually get a grip on the situation?

This is going to sound odd, but it wasn't a shock to me. I have a friend who is a special education teacher and while we were still living in the shelter, she told me that, upon doing some research of Asperger's in anticipation of a new student she would be having in the Fall, she began to suspect that this was what was ailing my daughter. She even sent me a copy of her research and I had to agree with everything she highlighted. So when the therapist said, "This is what we think we're dealing with," I just nodded and felt an extreme sense of relief. I think I just barely kept myself from shouting, "Finally!" because I suspected, even before my friend sent me the information, that there was still a piece of the puzzle missing. I think my daughter was relieved, too, because we finally had something to call the way she felt in school and social situations. So it was a good thing for us to get that diagnosis. I'm not saying that it has made the situation easier to handle, because it hasn't, but it has helped us to understand it better. Understanding is the beginning of change. As for mustering the strength, I have a wonderful support system and it starts with my mother who keeps me grounded and helps me to make sense of everything.

Multiple Sclerosis is a serious disease, and one that progresses. Are you concerned about the future for your daughters? What is your current philosophy in terms of what types of outcomes you wish for them?

I am always concerned about the outcome for my daughters. Even before I fell ill, I worried even more so because they were abandoned by their father when I decided to end the marriage because of his alcoholism and drug abuse. I worried that I didn't do enough to help their father even though he was beyond what help I could give him at that point. I worried that I had damaged them by denying them their father even though it was his choice not to come around anymore. So of course my concerns magnified when I was diagnosed with M.S. Fortunately for me, I am managing my symptoms and it's in a sort of holding pattern right now, so we're able to plan for the future just as if I wasn't ill. The last thing I want is for either of my daughters to feel like they have to put their lives on hold to care for me. As a matter of fact, my older daughter is in the process of preparing for college next fall and I am preparing to home school her sister because her current situation has become such a toxic situation for her that she developed school phobia and suffers from severe anxiety at the mere thought of having to enter the building. My philosophy is that I want them to prepare for their lives the same way they would if I didn't have M.S. I don't want my condition to deter them from reaching their goals, just as I am not allowing it to deter me from reaching my own. As a result of that philosophy, I achieved one of my major goals in life this past November when I had my first book, Nora's Soul, published.

As I often say, sometimes life sucks--that's the nature of the beast. But life is also beautiful and poignant. Through it all, what are the beautiful things that you have seen? Tell us what gifts have resulted from the struggles that you've lead your family through.

I couldn't agree more! There is so much beauty yet to be seen and enjoyed, whether it's a sunset, the first spring blossom, or the fiery foliage of Fall in New England. (Can you tell where I'm from?) Beauty comes in many forms and perhaps the most beautiful thing that I've witnessed on my current journey is the strengthening of the relationships in my family, particularly between myself and one of my sisters, who also has bipolar disorder. She has given me such great insight into the machinations of my daughter's mind, but she's also encouraged a special relationship with my daughter because she truly understands how my daughter feels - right down to the stomach problems that still plague her. That is the true gift here.

Of course, no one wishes tough times upon themselves. With that said, do you believe it's better to live a perfect life atop a silver platter, or do you believe that the struggles we face ultimately enrich our lives if we allow them to?

Who wants to live on a silver platter? It's cold and everyone looks at you funny. Seriously, though, all of our experiences, good and bad, have the power to enrich our lives. It's all in how we perceive them. And if we don't accept the bad, how can we appreciate the good? The struggles we face are what define us as people and bring out our true nature and teach us how to be better people, if we but listen. Although I don't enjoy some of my circumstances and don't relish what I have to face on a daily basis, I wouldn't want to change the circumstances that have led me to where I am today. Everything I have endured has made me the person I am and has put me in the path of some truly wonderful people that I would not have met otherwise. I do believe that my life has been enriched by my circumstances and I wouldn't want to change that.

Many people are struggled today due to our poor economic situation, among other things. If you could say anything to the world in regard to coping amidst multiple pressures and heartaches, what would that be?

Your worries will crush you if you let them. Don't let them. Take care of yourself and your mental health because if you don't, your body will start to break down and then you will have another issue to deal with. Don't be too proud to seek counseling if you're depressed; shatter those taboos about therapy. A good percentage of people in therapy are people like me who just needed to talk to someone about their situations; just because you see a therapist, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. (And keep in mind that people who are mentally ill aren't wrong, either; they're just wired differently.) Even if you don't talk to a therapist, talk to someone. Don't keep it bottled up inside; eventually it will explode and the results can be disastrous. And try not to give in to the mentality that the world is ending because you're facing all of these crises at once. It's not. Have faith in yourself, believe that you are strong enough and capable enough to handle it, and you will get through it. You just have to believe.

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