Friday, September 2, 2016

I Am Not Brock Turner's Mother, But I Could Have Been His Victim

Why mothers have to talk to their sons about sexual assault

Brock Turner was the son every mother wanted—until he wasn’t. A Stanford swimmer, smart, talented, good looking, hard-working, and a rapist. As the world knows, Turner made a very bad decision at a party one night, a decision that devastated his victim and landed him in jail…for three whole months.

That’s right. A disabled U.S. veteran who grows a few pot plants in his backyard can get sentenced to life in prison. But for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, quintessential white boy Brock Turner did three whole months in jail. He gets out today.

In the face of this absurdity, my friend and fellow blogger Elaine Ambrose joined forces with Audrey Hayworth to create the “You Can’t Rape Me Because I’m Drunk” challenge.  I hope that every woman blogger in the world writes something on this subject today.

The first thing I thought when I saw Brock Turner’s horrific story was, “Wow! That looks like my kid.” Then I called my oldest son, who like Brock, is a college student (though not at Stanford—they were the only school he applied to that rejected him, and seriously, it was their loss).

My son confirmed with a weary sigh that yes, I had in fact had “the talk” with him, several awkward times.

I’m not talking about the Sex Talk, where sex, like Lord Voldemort, is the Act That Must Not Be Named. I’m talking about the Consent Talk. As part of the talk, I routinely offer practical and well-meaning advice that my son should obtain a signed and notarized letter from any potential sexual partner stating the other person’s unequivocal wishes and also make copies of several forms of ID proving age, including but not limited to driver’s license and birth certificate. Vaccination records are a plus.

Am I joking? Maybe a little bit, but not really. The consequences to all involved parties are just too severe. I mean, yes, Brock Turner’s laughable prison sentence is the most insulting thing to women since that truly horrifying blog post on how to harass headphone-wearing gals who are clearly trying to avoid a conversation  and/or the most recent words out of Donald Trump’s mouth. 

But Turner will, in fact, face lifelong (and in my opinion, if not his father’s, well-deserved) repercussions for his decision to assault a helpless victim (you can read her powerful statement, if you haven’t already, here).

These frequent, blunt, uncomfortable conversations about consent are important for all of us. When I was a teenager, I was taught that “No means no.” Honestly, that didn’t always work out so well for me, or for many women. The times my “no” or my silence was incorrectly misconstrued as a “yes” include but are not limited to the following:
  1. A late night living room in an off campus apartment at Brigham Young University when I was a sophomore. I was reported to the BYU Honor Code office and threatened with possible expulsion from school. Also, my Bishop encouraged me to marry the person in question (I didn’t). Apparently, this kind of thing is still going on at BYU today
  2. A second class night train from Rome to Venice my junior year. The man in question, a stranger, made certain assumptions about American girls that were astonishingly untrue. Every time I look at pictures from that trip, I can see his leering eyes.
  3. A co-worker repeatedly asked me out, and I kept refusing, so he reported me to Human Resources and accused me of sexually harassing him. Apparently, if you don’t say yes, that is harassment. I found another job.

(The worst time is not on this list. I save that one for therapy.)

Of course, I was also taught that if a man did sexually assault me, it was really my fault, for one or more of the following reasons:
·       I was wearing a short skirt or baring my shoulders.
·       I was alone with him in his residence.
·       I let him buy me a drink.
·       I went for a walk by myself.
·       When women say no, they really mean yes (see obnoxious headphone essay above).
·       And so on.

Now, as an older and wiser mother of three sons (and one daughter), I know that consent is not about “No means no.” It’s about “yes means yes.” Unconscious or sleeping women cannot say “yes.” The fact that Brock Turner did not hear his victim say “no” in no way excuses what he did to her.

There’s this whole separate conversation we need to have about the judge in this case, not to mention the legal statutes that influenced his decision. But I’ll save that one for the legal experts. I’m relieved to learn that the judge asked to be removed from criminal cases and reassigned to civil ones, so he can’t wield his bias to harm any future victims of sexual assault. 

There’s also a whole separate conversation we need to have about alcohol on college campuses. Did alcohol impair Brock Turner’s judgement? That seems likely. According to the National Institute of Health, 97,000 students between the ages of 18-24 reported that they had experienced sexual assault while drinking.   In the aftermath of the Turner assault, Stanford has taken the bold step of banning hard liquor from campus parties in an attempt to “meaningfully change the campus culture around alcohol.”  

Of course, some worry this move may only exacerbate the problem of alcohol and sexual assault by driving it underground. And at some schools, sexual assault continues to be a problem even in the absence of alcohol (see BYU above).

But at the end of the day, as a mother of boys and as a sexual assault survivor, I feel that the solution to this problem starts at home. It is my duty to stand with all the other strong women who are framing this conversation on our terms. And it is my duty to talk with my sons and teach them what consent really means. The problem ends when my sons--and every mother's son--respect the women in their lives as equals.

Here’s a resource I use to jumpstart this crucial conversation: “Consent: It’s Simple as Tea.”   One notable line: “Unconscious people don’t want tea!”

Monday, June 6, 2016

Success, Failure, and Perspective

One of my 2016 New Year's resolutions (okay, maybe my ONLY 2016 New Year's resolution, since the usual ones about losing ten pounds and being nice to people on Twitter never seem to work out for me) was to start publishing essays from guest bloggers. I made that resolution in part because I wanted to share this poignant and heartbreaking story from my friend Shauna Robinson, an extraordinary mother with a lovely, brave daughter. Both Shauna and Renae agreed to let me publish this story of Renae's descent into depression and how it affected her mom. We changed Renae's name at her request.

Also, I realize that it's now June--six months past my initial resolution to kickstart this blog. What does that say about me? I prefer to think that it says I always get around to the important stuff, as soon as I can. Those of you who know what's been going on in my personal life will understand.

If you have a story you would like me to share, please contact me on Twitter @anarchistmom or Facebook.  

Here's Shauna's powerful story of parenting a teenage daughter with mental illness.--Liza

Success, Failure, and Perspective

It can be hard not to feel like a failure when your child
is suffering, and you don't know how to help.

by Shauna Robinson


"It killed me inside to walk away from my child. I was desperate to keep her alive and find help for her to be happy again. All I have wanted for her was to be happy and alive."


I remember the moment as if it were yesterday.  In fact, I had been anticipating this exact point in time for just shy of a year and was so curious to see the little life that had been growing inside me, face to face. About a week prior to this day, she almost put her tiny foot through my stomach while stretching, in an effort to let me know she needed more space, so I knew she possessed some spunk.  My labor flew by before I even knew what was happening, and then all of a sudden, I held in my arms the most amazing creature I had ever laid eyes on.  

Nothing, and no one, could have ever prepared me for how I would feel as I gazed upon my baby girl for the very first time.  In a flash, I was flooded with so many emotions; I could not take my eyes off her slimy little face, and I could not keep the lid on my heart.  It burst and the tears poured down my cheeks; pure joy.  This little one in my arms had to be the most beautiful gift I had ever received, and certainly, her birth, the greatest success of my life. 

Renae (name changed) was born a redhead, but not that bright orangey red.  Her eyes were brown, her skin creamy, and her hair auburn.  When she had been in the sun all day, she would tan instead of burning like most redheads with fair skin.  I was always amazed at how perfectly God had put her together and blended all her colors.  From the first time she was able to hold a crayon in her wee little fingers she was a full-fledged artist.  Over the years, as she grew, she dabbled in several different mediums of art, including musical instruments.  I have loved everything she has ever created and enjoyed watching her blossom.  She grew into a lovely, kindhearted, creative, hilarious, talented, and feisty young teenager.  

Sometime during Renae’s 16th year of life, I started sensing that something had changed.  It was subtle, and I could not be sure I was sensing things correctly; so I would lie on her bed with her at night before she would go to sleep and talk with her about her day.  I enjoyed those moments together.  Occasionally, I asked her, “Is everything okay?  It seems like something is bothering you.”  

“I’m fine,” she would respond adamantly.  

I felt her pushing me away, and my heart hurt.  “Okay, honey.  I do not want to pressure you, but I want you to know that I am here for you if or when you want to talk about anything.  I love you so much.”  

“I know, mom,” she would reply.  This continued on occasion for about three months.  I knew something was wrong, but I could not force her to confide in me.  I could not figure out what had changed in our relationship.  We had been so close and could talk about anything.

One night my husband came to me and told me that he heard Renae crying in her bedroom. He went in and asked her, “What is wrong, honey?”  

She could not answer him because she was sobbing uncontrollably.  He thought she might be willing to talk to me. Unfortunately, that was not the case.  We lay there and I held her for an hour or more while she sobbed so hard she would begin to hyperventilate.  I kept holding her and coaching her to try taking a deep breath in order to help her calm down.  I felt so helpless, and was puzzled as to what could possibly have her so upset. Everything was great. She was a normal 16 year old junior in high school looking forward to her future—so I thought.  

The next day we began looking for a counselor so she might be able to talk about whatever it was that was bothering her so deeply. We interviewed a few before she found one with whom she felt comfortable.  She met with this counselor a few times before the counselor told me that Renae was severely depressed, and she thought it would be a good idea for her to see a doctor.  

I took her to the doctor, and they began to try her on various medications and various doses of those medications. Renae seemed to be getting worse instead of better.  In a matter of months, I watched a vibrant, creative young woman, who was only two years from beginning her life as an adult, sink deeper and deeper into a black hole. It was as if something had come along and sucked her very soul right out of her body.  There was no life left in her eyes. She would not talk to me.  I was scared.

During this time, I felt the extent of my own powerlessness.  The beautiful life I had brought forth into this world now threatened to be taken out and would exist no more.  My husband and I both lost hours and hours of sleep, our stomachs in knots. I would creep into Renae’s bedroom to make sure she was still breathing several times a night. I was going crazy. He was going crazy. Our days were spent researching every drug, depression, mental illnesses, talking to counselors, doctors, and psychiatrists. No one knew the answers to make our precious girl okay again.  No one knew what had happened; not even Renae could explain why she felt this sense of despair.  Nothing made sense.

Then one day, I received the phone call.  My stomach dropped as if I was on one of those rides at the fair that goes up high and then drops from 100 feet in the air.  Renae had plans to kill herself within the next couple of days, and she had a specific plan on how she was going to do it. In fact, she had two different plans. 

The next 24 to 48 hours were a blur.  Within that timeframe, we met with Renae’s counselor and we contacted a treatment facility that said if we could be there by 1:00 the next afternoon, they had a bed for her. This was a home-like atmosphere instead of a mental institution, but had the care for the specific things with which Renae was struggling. We packed her things, got in the motor home, and drove all night long.  The 12 hour drive was quiet and heavy. We arrived in the nick of time.  

Once we had toured the facility and talked with the admissions counselor and some of the girls who were living there, we felt this place was our best option to keep our daughter alive and get her the help we thought she needed but could not provide for her. Everything within me screamed, “NO!!!  This cannot be happening!  How did this happen?  How did we get here?”  

Renae was so angry.  She sneered at me. I had gotten in the way of her plans to die, and now, I was going to abandon her when I had always been there for her. My husband, our son, and myself all wrapped our arms around Renae, hugged her tight, and we all cried.  Renae stood there, hard.  We told her we loved her and said we would be back when we could visit, then began to walk towards our vehicle. She cried in a barely audible voice, “Don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me here.”  

As we kept walking she grew more and more desperate to change our minds, but we could not.  It killed me inside to walk away from my child. I was desperate to keep her alive and find help for her to be happy again. All I have wanted for her was to be happy and alive. It was either walk away in that moment and trust these people to help us, or risk that we would wake up one morning, or come home one day, to find the beautiful “gift” we had been given, now 17 years ago, gone forever, no longer living.

This moment, too, feels as if it were yesterday. Sadly, Renae has never been as fully alive as she was during her first 16 years of life, which causes me to ask this question:  If her birth was my greatest success, would her death, even figuratively, be my greatest failure?  If I were to make a hypothesis based on my experience with my daughter, I would have to say yes. However, would that hypothesis be proven true or false?  I believe it is a matter of perspective. Success and failure are in the eye of the beholder.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Blessed Are the Women

My Mother's Day flowers
The Sermon I Wish I Could Give On Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is not my favorite holiday. While I appreciate the intent behind establishing a day to honor the women who gave us life, for me, as a mother, daughter, sister, and friend, the day itself is an ambiguous one, fraught with empathy for women who want to be mothers but are not, women who have lost mothers, women who are mothers grieving lost children, or women who are raising children in less than ideal circumstances (pretty much every mother at some point in her life). 

On Mother’s Day this year, I went to church with my ten-year old daughter and listened to rambling “talks” from two teenage boys, followed by a returned missionary report and the obligatory gift of a small bag of chocolate-covered cherries. I enjoyed the cherries. But I left wanting a different kind of sermon, one more focused on the day itself. Frankly, in the context of current cultural anti-feminist attacks, Mother’s Day platitudes feel like mere lip service.

Here’s the sermon I, as a woman and a mother, would have given on Mother’s Day:

Mary, the mother of Jesus, gave birth to her firstborn son under less than ideal circumstances. She was an unwed pregnant teenager, but fortunately, her fiancé Joseph decided to marry her anyway, even though they both knew he was not her baby daddy. These days, you don’t find too many stand-up guys like Joseph, unfortunately, as far too many single mothers can tell you. Mary gave birth in a barn, because there was no national healthcare system in those days, Some things haven’t changed.

When Jesus was 12 years old, his parents lost him while they were on a family trip. This was before text messaging. They found him in a synagogue teaching his elders about the scriptures. When his mom scolded him, Jesus gave her the best tween excuse of all time: “Mom, I’m doing God’s work here. Chill out.” If my 12-year-old son tried something like this, I would probably ground him from his iPod for at least a day. Also, I would be secretly impressed.

In Jesus’s brief ministry, here are some things he did not talk about (but which certain Republican legislators are trying to abrogate under the false pretense of “Christian Values”):

Gay marriage
Reproductive rights
Keeping people from using the bathroom they want to use.

And here are some things he did talk about (which seem largely absent from the vocabulary of many contemporary conservative Christians):

Loving one another
Embracing the stranger
Forgiving people and not judging them.

One of the last things Jesus taught by example was how to respect and honor our mothers. While he was dying on the cross, Jesus made arrangements to ensure that his mother was cared for. 

What do we do to care for the women in our lives? This election season, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the rhetoric of institutionalized sexism that has joined equally ugly racism and xenophobia in our national conversation. Policies that benefit women—maternity leave, childcare, healthcare, reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, etc.—are under attack. 

This Mother’s Day, I’m thinking about all of the women who deserve so much more than we have right now. 

Blessed Are the Women

Blessed are the mothers, 
for they gave us life.

Blessed are the mothers who stayed at home during our childhood,
For they played pretend games and served us healthy snacks.
They showed us they cared by sacrificing themselves for us.

Blessed are the mothers who worked during our childhood,
For they attended our school conferences and helped us with late night homework.
They showed us they cared by sacrificing themselves for us.

Blessed are the mothers who are married,
And blessed are the mothers who are not married.
Both have their secret sorrows and joys.

Blessed are the mothers who abandoned us:
We cannot always know the price they paid for our life.
And blessed are the mothers who are estranged from us
As we pray for reconciliation.

Blessed are the mothers who hurt us.
We do not know the pain that they endured,
And we forgive them, to assuage our own grief.

Blessed are the mothers of children who are sick:
Theirs is a special calling, to care too dearly, 
to trade one future for another.

Blessed are the mothers who have lost children too young.
Any mother who outlives a child has lost her child too young.
May we pray for grace and peace for these sweet mothers.

Blessed are the mothers of furry or slimy or scaly creatures.
Their calling is to care for all life,
And they nurture living things as acolytes of Mother Earth.

Blessed are the women who choose not to be mothers.
There is nothing selfish in their right 
To self-determination.

Blessed are the women who are not mothers but want to be.
Theirs is an exquisite grief, a primal longing,
Let us assure them that they belong and matter in our world.

Blessed are the sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends.
Blessed are all the women, for they shall care for the earth.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Letter to Bernie Sanders Supporters from an Angry White Woman who Supports Hillary Clinton

The Ada County Democratic Caucus in Boise, Idaho
Dear Well-Meaning Bernie Sanders Supporter:

I am not writing this letter to change your mind. I am writing this letter to help you understand why you won’t change mine.

In 1992, I voted in my first presidential election. Much to my Democratic parents’ chagrin, I’d grown up loving Ronald Reagan, but in college, I was disillusioned with Operation Desert Storm and unimpressed with George H.W. Bush’s lackluster economic policies. Like many people my age, I found myself intrigued by the sax-playing, wise-cracking young governor from Arkansas, with his “outsider” ethos and rags-to-riches American Dream narrative.

But what impressed me most about Bill Clinton was his wife.

From the start, it was clear that they were partners who considered each other equals. Hillary Clinton was smart, capable, and she didn’t stay home and bake cookies all day. She was the kind of woman I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember asking a friend, “Why can’t we have her for president?”

And my friend said, “Be patient. We probably will someday.”

In 2008, Clinton had proved her worth, working long hours as a senator, with a voting record nearly as progressive as Bernie Sanders.

Then another charming young man with a compelling rags to riches story came along, promising hope and change. Hillary Clinton got a consolation prize: Secretary of State. Watching President Obama finally reach his stride in the last days of his presidency, I wonder how things might have been different if their positions were reversed—if she had won the presidency in 2008, made him her Vice President, and he had learned the leadership skills he seems to be finally acquiring.

(Note: Obama’s presidency has been mostly a disappointment to me).

Instead, now we’re watching Hillary Clinton, the most qualified, intelligent, articulate, compassionate, pragmatic presidential candidate, get taken down again, this time by loud white men.

Ouch.

In 2008, I was willing to concede that hope and change were compelling. But now, in 2016, I can come to only one conclusion about why Hillary Clinton is still struggling to connect with many American voters: It’s because she is a woman.

It’s sure not because of her impressive resume:
  • She has the most foreign policy experience of any candidate. 
  • She is respected by leaders around the globe and is the most admired woman in the world. 
  • She is progressive but pragmatic.
  • She knows how to listen and to compromise
  • She basically invented universal healthcare in the United States.
  • She works harder than anyone else in the room.

I don’t think it’s because of her policy proposals either. I like Hillary’s specific, detailed plans to address a number of issues that concern me:
  • Campaign Finance Reform: Hillary would work to overturn Citizens United. Enough said.
  • Climate Change: Hillary wants to make the United States a leader in the energy revolution, creating millions of new jobs while also working to preserve our planet.
  • College Costs: As a college instructor, I am not a fan of Bernie Sanders’s free college, for many reasons. I support Hillary’s plan to control college costs and manage student loan debt so that any student who wants a college education can work for one.
  • Criminal Justice Reform: This is probably the single most important issue to me, and Hillary’s very first speech addressed the hard facts of race and justice inequality. I wish she were better on mental health issues, but I think she’ll come around to that piece of the mass incarceration problem as well.
  • Economy: Hillary has a smart plan for growth that includes addressing our nation’s critical infrastructure needs. I also support her tax relief for families plan, as well as her plans to address income inequality and corporate tax loopholes. Her husband presided over a period of economic prosperity, and I think that her centrist economic policies will be similar to his. As for the charge that she is in bed with the banks because she was paid speaker’s fees? Would we level the same charge at a man—i.e., negotiating a favorable contract and getting paid to do a job?

While Senator Sanders has some attractive ideas, there is absolutely no evidence that he has any interest in compromise or consensus building, nor has he given any realistic estimate of how he would pay for his massive social programs (“Tax the rich” really isn’t a comprehensive economic policy).  And he is from Vermont, a state about as lacking in diversity as my own state of Idaho.

If Hillary Clinton were a man, she would be the most popular candidate in the race. But it’s been shown time and time again that the qualities we admire in men—strength, decisiveness, intelligence—are the qualities we detest in women.

Even other women don’t like her. Women my mother’s age generally give two reasons for their dislike of Hillary: 1) She’s a liar; and 2) She stood by her man when he had an affair.

The first criticism is demonstrably untrue. Though all politicians have truth-bending skills, Hillary Clinton has been the most honestperson in this race, even compared to Sanders (72% of Clinton’s 125 evaluated statements have been evaluated as half true or better; 70% of Sanders’s 52 evaluated statements were half true or better; 77% of Donald Trump’s statements were mostly false or worse). When I pointed this fact out to a woman who told me Hillary was a liar, the woman replied, “Well, I just feel like she is a liar, even if she isn’t. You can’t trust her.”

Why? Because she is a woman.

The second criticism—really??? Really??? I’m not going to touch that one.

At least my son understands!
Younger women’s reasons for supporting Bernie Sanders are even more confusing to me. They seem to think that we’re in some kind of post-feminism utopia where a political candidate’s gender doesn’t matter. These same young women will wear, without a hint of irony, a t-shirt that reads “A Woman’s Place is in the House…and the Senate.”

(Meanwhile, women are 19% of House of Representatives, 12% of governors, 20% of Senators, 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs—and 0% of U.S. Presidents.)

Then there are women of a certain age—my age—who have grown up with Hillary Clinton, and who have experienced, on much smaller but equally painful scales, the rampant institutionalized misogyny that is currently threatening to deprive this country of its most qualified presidential candidate.

I am one of those angry white women. It makes me uncomfortable to write this, because I was raised to believe that anger was not an acceptable emotion for women. I was taught to believe that nice girls finish first.  

But I know I'm not alone. You don’t hear too much about angry women like me, mostly because, as you might expect in a country rife with institutionalized misogyny, all the focus is on the angry white men who support that pseudo-candidate with the fake hair and small hands.

When you do hear about us, it’s because someone like former Secretary of State Madeline Albright points out the obvious: this country needs a woman president. Then Hillary Clinton has to apologize for being the most qualified, experienced, and smart person in the race—because of her gender.

(Meanwhile, Trump doesn’t have to apologize for anything, but that’s another story).

I’m an angry white woman, because, like Hillary, I’ve been the most qualified person for a job—and lost it to a man. I’ve found out I’m being paid 25% less for doing the same job as a man. I’ve joyfully announced a pregnancy at work, only to be told by my boss, “I guess we can’t count on you for anything.” 

Like Hillary, I’m a smart, capable woman, and like Hillary, I’ve paid dearly, both personally and professionally, for having qualities that are considered “leadership traits” in men. When a woman has those same qualities, people use another, less polite word. One that is also applied to female dogs.

“But wait!” several of my white male friends have told me. “I’m a feminist. I don’t support institutionalized misogyny. Bernie Sanders’s policies are better for women. And anyway, I don’t really see this misogyny you’re talking about.”

Of course you don’t. You are not a woman. And while most Bernie Sanders’s supporters are polite and reasonable, there is a small but vocal minority of white men, sometimes called the BernieBros, who rival Trump supporters in their vicious attacks on people who disagree with them. Like all women expressing support for Hillary on Twitter, I’ve personally experienced the BernieBros’ brand of “Feel the Bern.” 

You know what’s better for women that Bernie Sanders’s progressive policies? A woman president.

Hillary Clinton has survived years of vicious gossip and Washington vitriol, all the while working hard to serve Americans. Has she made mistakes? Of course she has. But she has been accountable about them, unlike many men I can think of, her husband included.

Hillary Clinton is a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She is still the person I want to be when I grow up—but more importantly, I want my children to see that a woman not only can grow up to be president, she can be an awesome president.

Hillary Clinton speaks to my head—and to my heart. I’m hoping this time, she’ll get her well deserved chance to make history.

Signed,


An Angry White Woman


Monday, December 21, 2015

Day of Reckoning

Does the Tooth Fairy bring change to grownups?
All I Want for Christmas Is a New Front Tooth

On the first day of Christmas vacation 2015, I shivered in a dentist’s chair, trying not to throw up. The day I had been dreading for more than 23 years—the day my right front tooth had to go—was finally here. And I was foolish or hubristic enough to think I could handle the extraction without nitrous oxide.

I listened to the swishes and whirrs and slurps, trying to ignore the dentist as he wrenched and tugged and clawed at my tooth. My mind wandered back to the last day of class my sophomore year in college, when I lost the tooth the first time. It was late afternoon, and the sun was setting in flaming pinks and golds over the mountains as I returned exhausted but happy from an 18-mile spring bike ride up Provo Canyon. As I leaned in to hop onto the curb in front of Stan’s Drive-In on Ninth Street, I realized too late I was going too fast.

I wish I could say I don’t remember the next few seconds, but I do. As my front tire clipped the curb, I soared over the handlebars, connecting jaw-first with the gravelly pavement. When I came to rest, I lay still for a moment, noting strange and somehow significant patterns in the pink tinged cotton ball clouds above my head. Then I tasted salt. My hand, when it touched my lip, dripped bright blood.

“Are you okay? Are you okay?” A crowd had gathered around me. One of Stan’s employees handed me a towel as I gingerly tried to sit up. At least my neck wasn’t broken. But I couldn’t talk. A young man helped me into his car and offered to take me to the school clinic. When we got there, the intake nurse took one look at me and said, “Take her to the hospital. Now.”

The hospital was a blur. The triage nurse kept calling me the wrong name, and I couldn’t correct her. My roommates came as soon as they learned the news—a police officer had been called to the scene and took my bike home. My fiancée showed up a few hours later. The ER doctor ordered x-rays and after studying them, told me it could have been much worse; instead of a snapped spine or a traumatic brain injury, I had a broken jaw, a broken chin, and several loose or broken teeth, one of which was lodged in my lower lip. He told me I’d need surgery to set things right, and he suggested that I have general anesthesia, though that would mean taking incompletes in my classes, since I wouldn’t be able to take final exams the next day.

“Let’s do local anesthetic,” I wrote on a notepad. I’d worked too hard that semester. Five hours later, I regretted my decision, but I was stable—my lip and chin sewn shut, and my jaw wired together. I don’t remember my finals, though apparently I passed them.

A week later, I was home recuperating—without a ring on my finger. Though my heart hurt all summer long, my jaw healed right on schedule. I spent that summer in the dentist’s chair, having some of the strangest one-sided conversations of my life as he applied crowns and esthetics to my shattered mouth. My dentist then was an evangelical Christian, and since he knew I was majoring in Greek, he would ask me all kinds of questions about New Testament things like kaire (loosely, “grace”) and hamartia (loosely, “sin”), to which I would reply, my mouth stuffed with wads of cotton, “Hmahnt mah hmmnn.”

The dentist wasn’t able to save my soul, but with a root canal and some fancy polymer tricks, he did save that front tooth. “You’ll probably get ten years out of this, tops,” he told me. “It was in pretty bad shape.”

Twenty-three years later, I feel like I definitely got my money’s worth out of that tooth. I wish I could say the same for my first marriage.

When my father would retell the story of my bike accident, he would say, “It was a miracle. God caused the pavement to rise up and save you from getting married to the wrong man.”

I don’t know if it was God who caused my bike accident. But I do know my Dad was right—I was good at a lot of things, but choosing to be with men who treated me well was not one of them.

Dad died after a long struggle with cancer a few months after I started graduate school. Before he died, my father did meet J, the man who would become my first husband, at our college graduation, and later, I would imbue my memory of their brief conversation with special significance, just as my father had seen my bike accident a few years earlier as fortuitous.

I don’t blame myself or him. We are all creatures of story, looking for signs in accidents.

Here was the incontrovertible sign (from God, I thought then) that J was meant to be with me: We were missing the same front right tooth. Or rather, he was missing his front right tooth—and mine was barely hanging on, by the grace of God and my dentist.

The missing tooth was one of the first things I knew about the man who would become the father of my children. J was sitting in front of me in a Latin class senior year, and when he turned around to give me one of his brilliant smiles, there was a dark, shocking gap where his tooth should have been. I gasped, then giggled, catching an uncharacteristic glare from our professor, an elderly Mormon classicist who called us his “Greeklings” and once told a colleague, in my presence, that I was the perfect woman because I baked the most delicious sugar cookies. And also (an afterthought), I could read Greek.

J flipped his artificial tooth back in and smiled innocently, a row of straight, white teeth. After class, he got the conversation he was clearly fishing for. He explained about the tooth—and other things, including his recent divorce.

The fact that he had been married before his senior year of college was not all that shocking. This was Brigham Young University, after all, where every sidewalk crossing and Sunday School class was a potential opportunity to find your eternal companion. But the divorce had made him an almost a legendary figure among my starry-eyed schoolmates.

How bad must his marriage have been, if it had ended so quickly?

The story, like many of his stories, was truly tragic. He was clearly a victim. His first wife was a monster. And since I had come too close for comfort to a similar fate, escaping only at the last moment through God’s miraculous jaw-breaking, tooth-loosening intervention, I was sympathetic.  

Many years later, when he started to tell the same kinds of stories about me, I was less inclined to think of J’s first wife as a monster. It was more complicated than that.

My marriage to J was perfect, right up until it wasn’t. “We never disagree,” he would tell our friends when they asked our secret.

“It is important to compromise in marriage,” I would tell myself.

And we did agree, about many, many things. When we didn’t, I quickly learned to be quiet. That’s what I meant by “compromise.”

I rarely thought about my tooth during those years. Contrary to my dentist’s doomsday predictions, it didn’t give me a bit of trouble at the ten year mark. There were plenty of other troubles that year though. J was fired. We moved to Idaho, away from our family and friends. I struggled with depression and a child with severe behavioral problems.

In 2008, I lost my faith and my marriage, in quick succession.  

A few years later, I was surprised and humbled to find myself in love with the most unlikely person for me: a man who treats me well. He’s from New Jersey. His teeth are fine, and I take that as a sign of nothing more (and nothing less) than good oral hygiene habits through the years.

Shortly after I married for the second time, my new dentist gave me some bad news: my front tooth was in trouble. He couldn’t tell me how long I had, and it was just before my book tour, so we made a fake tooth flipper “just in case.”

“We wouldn’t want you to have to go on Dr. Oz with a broken tooth,” he laughed. I thought it was somewhat ironic that I would be talking about mental illness, an invisible disability, but that people would be much less likely to listen to me or take me seriously if I were missing my front tooth.

My front tooth lasted another year. Then one morning in late November, I woke up with a mouthful of blood, and that day, I decided I’d had enough. I called my dentist and scheduled the tooth extraction.

As with most reckoning days, the anticipation has proven far worse than the actual experience. Besides, as I left the dentist’s office, I found a penny. Later that day, my husband texted me a picture of a double rainbow. And I found my favorite windmill necklace that has been missing for a year.

I may be missing a tooth. But I’m lucky. I’m not missing much else.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Room in the Inn

Would you find room  for this family? "Nativity" by Carl Bloch
Do we give what we want, or what they need?

My husband and I gave each other an early Christmas present this year: a weekend “staycation” at one of our favorite Boise boutique hotels. After we checked in, surveying the chic modern décor with approval, we decided to take a Linen District walk.

A few blocks later, we ended up at what was left of Cooper Court.

Cooper Court was a tent city for the homeless that sprung up last summer in the alley behind Interfaith Sanctuary and the Corpus Christi day shelter on 16th Street. Now the days have turned cold, and city officials, rightly concerned about sanitation and possible fire hazards, had decided enough was enough. The tent city had to come down.

The city had evicted the residents the day before, and now the street was blocked off, monitored by friendly and courteous Boise City police officers who were assisting residents in moving or storing their belongings.

One young man—he looked barely 18—with curly red hair tucked beneath a baseball cap and fear in his eyes approached us. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, gesturing at the alley. “I don’t have anywhere to go.” He explained that he was unable to stay in one of the shelters because of his arrest record, and he couldn’t go to another one because, “they just treat us like animals.” A police officer approached him, addressed him by name, and asked if he could help.

As we turned the corner, my husband, who usually only cries at movies featuring dogs and/or football, burst into tears. “He was such a nice young man!” he exclaimed. “It’s just wrong.”

Walking back to our hotel in silence, we passed an elderly couple sitting beneath the freeway overpass, huddled together for warmth. In most cases, entering the shelters would mean they would have to separate: Aside from Interfaith Sanctuary, Boise doesn’t really have a solution for people like them.

The irony of the situation was not lost on us. While my husband and I certainly are not wealthy—we are both employed as adjunct college instructors—we live in a comfortable 1800 square foot home in a safe, friendly neighborhood. And here we were, just minutes from home, enjoying a weekend in a luxury hotel, while blocks away, more than 100 people were wondering where they would spend this and many more nights, hoping it wouldn’t snow.

Many of my friends erroneously thought that the city had created an alternative for the residents of Cooper Court. But the city’s shelter was temporary—one night, and a hot shower. The city was prepared for 200. Only 15 people took them up on the overnight offer. The cost to taxpayers for this operation? More than $100,000. That’s a lot of rent money. Meanwhile, Ron Winegar from the Boise Police Department admitted that the city doesn’t really have a long term solution. 

Many of my friends donate time and money, like I do, to organizations that work to help and house the least fortunate in our society. But what surprised me when Cooper Court closed down were the reactions on social media from these kind, compassionate, well-meaning people. “There is plenty of shelter space,” they said. “These people are just choosing not to take advantage of the many things we have offered them.”

The truth is, it’s not that simple. The shelter rules are onerous; there is no sense of autonomy or personal space. My friends who have spent nights there tell me that you are reminded—constantly—how “grateful” you should be for a bed and some heat, despite all the strings it comes with.

Aside from Interfaith, which has limited space, the shelter system doesn’t help families. It sometimes doesn’t help people with felonies. And it really doesn’t help people who have serious mental illness.

I’m not discounting the many volunteer hours and dollars people have given to help the homeless in our community. Nor am I saying that a tent city is a good long term solution to our obvious problem of homelessness.

What I am saying is this: To those who say, “There’s room in the inn” or “They should be grateful for what we give them,” here’s something to think about this Christmas season. Are we giving what we want to give, or are we giving what they need?

Acclaimed Boise musician Curtis Stigers and tireless homeless advocate Jodi Peterson have announced an additional show for “The Night Before the Xtreme-Unplugged” on Saturday, December 19 at the Egyptian to benefit the Corpus Christi day shelter and those displaced from Cooper Court. You can purchase tickets here. 



Monday, December 14, 2015

Three Years after Newtown: Hope

Parents for Care dinner in Baltimore, with
the SuperMoms (and Dads) who advocate for their
children who have serious mental illness
Three years ago, when a mother, 20 first graders, 6 educators, and a young man with untreated mental illness died by gun violence in Newtown, Connecticut, I was on the phone with a social worker in Boise, Idaho. He wanted me to press charges for assault against my then 13-year-old son, who had threatened to kill himself a few days earlier. My back and ribs still ached, and my arms were covered with bruises and bite marks sustained when I tried to keep my son from bolting into oncoming traffic.

When I heard about Newtown Friday morning at work, I put my head on my desk and sobbed. My younger two children were still in elementary school, and I couldn’t even imagine how horrible it would be to lose them like that.

Except I could.

With Representative Tim Murphy
My third son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital--again. After years of trying to find help for him, we still didn't have answers.

But I knew two things for certain that morning. First, my son was not a bad kid. He was not a monster, or a psycho. He was a kind, sweet, sensitive boy who suffered immense pain and deserved help.

Second, I was not a bad mother.

That terrible morning in 2012, without knowing any details other than the age of the shooter and the fact that his mother--and 26 innocent people--were dead, I felt like I knew everything.

So I wrote, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mofher." And I thought I was the only mother in the entire world who could sympathize with Nancy Lanza.

It turns out I was far from alone. Mental illness touches us all in some fashion. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children will suffer a debilitating mental disorder before age 18.  Almost one in five adults will experience mental illness in any given year (excluding substance abuse disorders). l  And serious mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—affects 10 million adults, or 4% of our population.  These men and women are too often shunted into a nightmarish “revolving door” of prison and homelessness because we do not have the community or medical supports in place to provide them with life-saving treatment. 

A reading from my award-
winning book at StoryFort
Three years after Newtown, I was able to travel around the country and see what's working in mental health--and why we still have so far to go. If you want to learn more about ways you can help children and families like minhe, click on the links below to learn more about these organizations, and think about donating if you are able to do so.

In January, I made my first trip to Washington D.C. as a guest of the Treatment Advocacy Center to celebrate an advocacy award given to Representative Tim Murphy for his tireless efforts to reform the mental healthcare system at the national level. 

In February, I spoke at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Arizona annual luncheon in Phoenix, where I was able to learn about crisis wraparound services provided to children and families. 

In March, I won a 2015 “Books for a Better Life” award for “The Price of Silence” and I participated with my son in a StoryFort reading hosted by the Cabin in Boise. 

2015 APA
annual meeting in Toronto.
In April, I spoke at the North Dakota Juvenile Justice conference and also visited with several parents whose children were struggling with mental illness. I also spoke at the Showers of Hope luncheon to support the Lindner Center of Hope in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Lindner family has a legacy of philanthropy in their community; they are now contributing their resources to help fund a truly revolutionary center of excellence for mental healthcare treatment and research. I also was the keynote speaker for the Idaho Children’s Home Society, an organization that provides counseling to low income children and families in our Boise community. 

With Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, author
of "Shrinks" (must-read!)
May was a busy month. I spoke at the Siouxland Mental Health Center annual conference and learned more about partnerships with mental health courts that reduced recidivism rates for people suffering from mental illness by more than 75%. That’s a huge savings, both in taxpayer dollars and in lives. I also co-presented a workshop at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Toronto. The workshop was the brainchild of Mental Health America’s thoughtful Patrick Hendry. Every advocate should read his paper on meaningful dialogue. Finally, I gave the keynote speech for Thresholds in Chicago, where I was brought to tears by the life-changing work their staff has done as they intervene with at-risk youth and give them a chance at a bright future.

September took me to Miami, Florida, to present at the 8th annual Chair Summit, where I met psychiatric care providers from all over the Americas, including Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman and Dr. Paul Summergrad, and learned about cutting-edge new research and treatments—and enjoyed an authentic Cubano and the best ceviche I’ve ever had. When I returned, I attended my first NAMI-Boise chapter board meeting. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is one of the nation’s most prominent advocacy groups and provides free education classes for the community.

The Oklahoma City Memorial
In October, I spoke at my first non “mental health” conference. Leadership Oklahoma decided to focus their annual meeting on mental illness and its impact on the Oklahoma community. Sadly, less than a week later, a young woman with mental illness crashed into a crowd of people, killing four people. Cathy Costello, whose untreated son stabbed her husband Mark, Oklahoma’s well-respected labor commissioner, was in the audience.   

In November, I was able to meet several of my mom advocate heroes in person at the Johns Hopkins annual Schizophrenia summit. The presenters, top researchers in their field, took time to meet with us as parents and answer our questions at an event organized by the inimitable Laura Pogliano, founder of Parents for Care.  Laura’s son Zac, who suffered with schizophrenia, died tragically at the age of 23 earlier this year. 

And now, on December 14, I’m in San Diego, preparing to attend the International Bipolar Foundation board meeting. Our board members include Randi Silverman, whose poignant film, No Letting Go, tells the hopeful story of a teenager struggling with mental illness and his family, and Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge and is now sharing his powerful story to help others. 

Messages in Dutch Bros coffee lids.
Last year, on the second anniversary of Newtown, I wrote on the Huffington Post that we were “Two Years to Nowhere.”  Today, I have more hope. But real change depends on each of us. As a society, we have an obligation to provide treatment to those who suffer. As individuals, we have an ethical duty to treat one another with respect and compassion.


We still have a long way to go, but it feels like we’re finally moving in the right direction.