Sandra Lafferty

Writer ~ Educator ~ Mental Health Advocate


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Helping to Clear the Emotional Debris

Feelings1

Jennifer Mills-Knutsen outlines some well thought out and practical Do’s and Don’ts for helping after a Disaster on her blog, For the Someday Book. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read. Of particular interest to me was her reminder to listen – and to listen patiently without judgment.

Our culture is not good at listening. We like to finish sentences for each other and refocus the attention, whether intentionally or subconsciously, onto ourselves. The trauma of a disaster leaves people needing to talk about their experience but it’s not productive to be the listener who says “I know just how you feel. When thus-and-such happened to ME, yada yada yada. “ Listening is an activity of the ears not the mouth.

Being a good listener is important after major disasters like the recent tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, but also during times of distress from illness, failed relationships and financial hardship. These less far-reaching, more personal disasters also leave people needing to tell their story and it’s a boon to their mental health to have a caring listener who accepts whatever emotions they are currently tracking on the carpet.

Feelings just are; they are neither good nor bad, they just are. As a listener, try to let emotions flow on by without redirection, evaluation or judgment. Pain and fear can sound angry and there may be something cathartic in verbally lashing out at a perceived roadblock even if that blame is misplaced. If you pass on the opportunity to correct someone who is blaming the wrong person or agency, you allow them freedom to vent without the burden of logic. The need is to tell the story until it falls into perspective and the healing begins.

Likewise, pain and fear are repetitious. Listen like you’ve never heard it before.

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. — Margaret J. Wheatley


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Picking Up Pieces of Other People’s Lives

EF5 TornadoDrought-breaking rains kept us from managing the several acres of vegetation that can’t legitimately be called a ‘lawn’ around our home. This day brought the first window of opportunity. I’d been eager to lose myself in the loud engine noise. This is where I go when I want quiet time alone. I find peace in the roaring barrier between me and household demands. On the mower I have time to think and just be.

But this day was different. There was no peace.

This week I felt odd, almost disloyal. I found my self-talk questioning my right to enjoyably cruise the yard while so many people were faced with a devastating pile of rubble that used to be their home. How could I care about foot-high dandelions right now? I’ve experienced a lot of feelings while mowing the yard but never before guilt.

Our brittle blackjack oak trees are forever dropping branches in the wind that serve as hazards. I can either walk the yard first or plan to stop multiple times to hop off the mower and drag dead wood out of my way. This day I’d chosen the latter.

I started with an open stretch that was dry, hoping the morning sun would have time to dry out the eastern sloping areas. The third pass afforded my first need to shut down and hop off the mower in retrieval mode. A flat piece of wood was lodged in the tall grass. I picked it up and held my breath. It was a thin piece of siding painted a soothing grey-blue on one side with jagged edges and empty nail holes that told how violently it had been removed from its place on someone’s home.

Tornado debris.

I tucked the siding by my seat on the mower and carried it with me. Tiny tufts of wet insulation dotted the yard. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

I brought the mower to a sudden stop when I caught a glimpse of a colorful picture. I hurried to pick it up, in case it was a photograph, a precious memory to its owner. A beautiful bird was printed on cardstock weight paper – a portion of an envelope shaped package with a woman’s name printed neatly on the flap. It was of no value and I had no idea what used to be inside it, but I couldn’t throw it away.

A twinkling silver reflection caught my attention and I picked up a tiny bow made of metallic ribbon. It was a premade bow designed to peel and stick on a small package. I wonder if the twister interrupted a celebration.

Ordinary people doing ordinary things when their world was ripped apart.

I kept an especially sharp eye on the ground in front of the mower, looking for odds and ends that had been torn from someone’s home and dropped on mine. Each scrap I retrieved felt important. It had a story to tell. I collected them with the blue siding.

Looking at the store receipt with handwritten directions on the back made me wonder if its owner was traveling along the highway to that address when the tornado tossed cars aside like Hot Wheels. A tattered fax listing job openings in Aerospace Propulsion was dated 1993 – someone had saved it for 20 years before it was swept away by a violent wind. Film production was the topic on a scrap from a book or magazine.

I look at the waterlogged battered pieces of other people’s lives and cry. Some lost loved ones, some lost homes, all lost priceless treasures and the security of the little things that were always there.

Am I feeling sorrow, grief, frustration, gratefulness, insecurity, or survivor’s guilt? On some level, all of the above.

To those who are laboring side by side with those whose lives were blown apart by the 2013 tornados, you have my deepest gratitude for being where I cannot be. To those who, for whatever reason, cannot donate time and labor, I entreat you to donate monetarily to help sustain those who must carry on and rebuild in the face of unspeakable loss.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, wild fires, tsunamis, tornados. Adversity draws humanity together; it brings out the helpers. It’s what we do.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Fred Rogers


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When Butterflies Aren’t Flying: An Irreverent Look at Childhood Wisdom

My son likes to spend his allowance at the dollar store. He hasn’t learned that cheap toys don’t last. For him it’s all about stretching his two dollars as far as he can.  That’s fine but ten minutes after we get home most of his choices fail the usage test.  Still he smiles and marches to the cashier, generally presenting money before the item being purchased, and week after week buys junk.

Victory! I talked him into saving and with the help of some extra side jobs, he has nine dollars. Now he’ll see the error of his ways. Off we go to Wal-Mart in search of a more substantial choice than a hollow plastic dinosaur or a set of cars with axles already falling off in the bag.  Nope. That’s too much money. Take me to a different store he says, clinging to his green.  Ugh. We need more than nine dollars to shop at Toys-R-Us so now what?  His suggestion … back to the Dollar Store.  Oh for Pete’s sake!

Well, a dollar lighter we are home with a super duper lime green butterfly net which will momentarily be adorned with duct tape to better secure the net to the stick. Chasing butterflies, bugs and hopping critters is a great spring pastime and I applaud his choice in theory.

This spring has been unseasonably cold and we here in mid-America are still getting thermostatic whiplash with a hard freeze following right on the heels of an 82 degree afternoon.  Another freeze is coming next week. I’ve told Munchkin that we are not likely to be inundated with morphed caterpillars while the nights still feel like December. Undaunted, he dons a coat and goes in search of the illusive butterfly.  I get a cup of tea, wondering if the net will survive long enough to ever whip through the air in pursuit of a Monarch.  (No I don’t think we get Monarchs here, but using the word butterfly again in this short blurb would create a grammar gaff that would leave me sleepless. And, well, chasing a Painted Lady with a net just seems kind of inappropriate for a four-year-old.)

A bit later I’m in search of a too quiet Munchkin. There he is, net full of bright yellow flowers, smiling.

Whatcha doing?

Nothing.

Find any butterflies?

Nope. But I got these. What are they?

Dandelions, I say resisting the urge to call them weeds.

Well, Mama, when butterflies aren’t flying, just hunt dandelions!

Eyes watering and fighting back a sneeze I congratulate Munchkin on his catch just as the net full of bounty is bunged beneath my nose.  Back inside I grab a glass of water to wash the pollen from my throat. Munchkin stares at me through my half empty glass. There is something naively profound in what he said I murmur, knowing he sees my glass half full.

Butterfly Hunting


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5 things I learned raising mentally ill children

Image by Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons

Image by Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons

1.  Listen, listen, listen

As much as I sometimes want to stick my head in the sand it’s important to stay involved. Good advice for every parent, but vital to those of us with mentally ill children of any age. Clues are everywhere – even in their silence. If you practice listening on purpose you’ll gain insight into their thinking that you wouldn’t otherwise have because they can’t or won’t tell you. You’ll know how they handle pain; you’ll know where to start looking if they go missing; and you’ll learn to know when they’ve been quiet too long.

2.  Take every threat seriously

Don’t put threats from your children under a bushel basket of fear or denial. Whether directed inward or outward, every threat needs to be addressed. Even very young children can be dangerous to themselves and others. I’m throwing myself onto the proverbial sword here but as bad as it sounds children aren’t all fluffy puppy-like creatures and it’s unwise to stereotype them like that. I’m not saying that all children with mental health issues are dangerous and you shouldn’t read that into what I’m saying, but be willing to be honest with yourself and others if you think there is a problem. It’s an act of love. I feel compelled to add this word of forewarning: adults accusatory of the very young will themselves be viewed with mistrust and put under a microscope of suspicion. This is especially true if you don’t yet have a firm diagnosis. Don’t let that stop you.

3.  Isolation comes with the territory

Stigma isn’t just a word thrown about in discussions of mental health. It’s very real pain. There is a stigma that comes with being different, or having someone different in your family, and being different sets you apart – sometimes very far apart. You lose friends. You get shunned and uninvited. Play dates for a kid who overturns furniture without provocation or enjoys shredding paper into tiny bits to create cherished collections are hard to arrange. Even trips to the ER with an adolescent who self-harms can lead to medical professionals publically shouting “it’s the cutter again” and your wish to become momentarily invisible.

4.  Siblings can be peripheral damage

Your other kids can get lost in the shadows. Siblings are victims too. They have lost a person they loved and are faced with someone they don’t know. They fear it will happen to them. It kills them to see you hurting and they want to fix it. But like you, they are helpless.

5.  Love and Rescue are not synonyms

There is a time to stop making things right. It can be hard to define the line where helping becomes enabling. A good first step is admitting that the line exists. Don’t stop looking for resources, but stop replacing wrecked cars, covering debts, paying bail and buying the lies.

Having mentally ill children is frightening whether yours is a child carrying a lunch pail to elementary school, a defiant teenager killing emotional pain by creating physical pain, or an adult who follows voices you cannot hear.

What have you learned from your love of the mentally ill?


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Poetry, Mental Illness and Motherhood: A Challenge

This week’s writing challenge is a poem.  Not a good fit for me.  I blog about parenting challenges, childhood mental illness . . . . there’s no Roses Are Red in that.

Or maybe there is.

Here’s my take on childhood mental illness presented in as much poetic format as I could manage. I’ve developed a new respect for WordPress blogging poets who wrangle with formating features on an ongoing basis. My hat’s off to you.

Golden Child, Bronx, NY

(Photo credit: Grufnik)

          The Golden Child

Sparkling child so full of promise,
Wherever did you go?
Do you hide beneath the lily
Waiting to surprise?

     I lift the leaves prepared to start
     As you spring blithely forward.
     No hand find I to clasp in mine
     And show me toward the future.

                      ~

Radiant child once full of love
Why hidest you so long?
Hear you not the blue bird singing
As sunshine warms your face?

     Old things are left behind,
     Outgrown but not replaced;
     Leaving cobwebs in the places
     That used to give you reason.

                      ~

Reclusive child once full of questions,
Queries beyond your age.
Where is the passion of your search
For keys and magic doors?

     Hinges rust and creek
     On doors that lead to knowledge;
     Well greased are portals that devour
     And strip away the nymph.

                      ~

Street child beguiled
By legions of deceit
That lure you into secrets
And darkness in their lair

     Seek strength and wisdom from the light
     And power not your own.
     Hope and Peace are calling you.
     Turn not a deafened ear.

                      ~

Saddened child once full of joy
That cascades onto others,
Your swirling ribbons and gifts of paper
Brought smiles amid the wrinkles.

     So many blessed by little gestures
     You seem to think unnoticed
     Now sit in prisons, hands extended,
     Hoping to catch your glitter.

                      ~

Half child and half adult
Caught in tentacles of self reproach 
Flailing against yourself 
To quash your gilded hue. 

     Fear not refining fire 
     That purifies -- renews. 
     Remember, child, from whence you sparkled: 
     Your heart is solid gold.

©Sandra Lafferty 2013


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Game invites, passwords and very poor spelling

Note to self: stop leaving electronics logged on when you leave the room.

I just discovered that I invited 8 people to play Words With Friends, locked myself out of a protected app by trying the password too many times, and left my blog page in favor of YouTube — All while I was making a PB&J sandwich.

iPhone = Kid distraction device

I’ve been hacked by a preschooler.

Being only a few feet away was enough of a buffer to allow exploration into grandma’s icon land. I’m still not sure if the 3’6” hacker sent an email or shared a blog comment.

So, if you receive an incoherent message from me using letters primarily from the middle row on the keyboard, either I forgot the advice I just gave myself or I’m having a very, very bad day. Either way …. Oops.