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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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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Do I need a pocket protector to go with my copy of the DSM-5?

I kept my excitement under wraps when the DSM-5 went into editorial review but now that it’s publication date has been announced I’m ready to press my nose to a bookstore window and quiver.   DSM-IV_092DSC_0791

Admittedly, that’s a little outside the norm on two levels. One, that I still prefer brick and mortar bookstores, and two, that it’s an odd book choice since I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or attorney working with the mentally ill. Truth is I’ve had some edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a guide to mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, on my bookshelf for many years.

Yep. Throw a log on the fire, pour a cup of tea, and curl up with the DSM – the perfect evening.  That officially makes me some sort of nerd I suppose. However, nerd conjures up images of tortoise shell glasses, tailored shirts, high-rise trousers and plastic pocket protectors.

Oh….

I think I’m only missing the pocket protector. Kind of an embarrassing image when you consider that I’m a middle-America soccer mom.

Nonetheless, as someone who has morphed from a psychiatric research wannabe to a special ed teacher-in-training to a stay-at-home professional parent, I have an intrinsic interest in mental and educational challenges.   From the day a psychiatrist and room full of social workers told me to choose another child because the one I’d selected had deficiencies and should be institutionalized instead of adopted, I’ve been fighting to make a difference in the lives of differently-abled and at-risk children.  It’s never been wise to tell me something can’t be done.  I have this annoying habit of replying “watch me.”

So, if you see someone in the reference isle of a bookstore snatching up editions on educational methodologies or mental health topics with all the enthusiasm of an avid yard-sale shopper, please overlook the yellow highlighter stain on my shirt.  I don’t have a pocket protector.


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Me on sourdough with mayo

My suitcase was packed and ready to go – I was organized on schedule with check-list in hand as usual. The phone rang; my brother spoke; my destination changed. No longer would I be touring a Florida art college with my granddaughter and basking on the beach that weekend.

The California coast would ordinarily be a fair trade, but on this trip I would see little beyond hospitals. My elderly father had become ill and fallen, causing a flood throughout his home.  My brother didn’t know how long Dad had been sprawled in the water, but the breadth of the flood made us think it was hours.

Feeling that he had the situation under as much control as was possible, my brother urged me not to fly out there. Maybe it was the left brain of the family scientist or just man-thinking, but his logic didn’t sit right with me. I needed to be there.

By 3AM my husband was driving me to the airport for an early morning flight to Los Angeles. The groggy preschooler in the back seat would be well taken care of by my husband and a nearby daughter who can always be counted on to rise to the occasion when she is needed. Another aunt offered to fly in to help care for her nephew. He was in good hands.

I’ve been a parenting grandparent for nearly four years and we’re settled into a regular family routine which I consider fully functional and healthy.  I was comfortable shifting gears from grandma to daughter.

The weekend getaway I’d packed for was lengthened day after day after day as I waited for Daddy’s condition to improve. The time difference made it difficult but I managed to read a bedtime story several times using FaceTime from iPad to iPad, which offered a smidgen of our regular routine and afforded me a little time to be Nana.

At last it became clear that Daddy would survive the massive infection that nearly whisked him away from us, but his strength was sapped and his vital organs were slow to recover.  The man who could do anything, fix anything, take care of himself and lend a hand to others now had trouble getting a fork to his mouth and toppled easily when trying to brush his teeth.

I only have one sibling and we are essentially both only children, with 13 years between us.  He has young teenagers, a corporate job that keeps him traveling and their home is several hours from Dad’s. It wouldn’t be easy for him and his wife to balance homework, after school activities and commuting to make daily hospital visits and check on contractors.  I was needed and it felt good to help, to give back.

Ultimately I would be forced to let the lion’s share of the caretaking fall on my brother’s family since I live 1500 miles away.  I felt compelled to do all that I could while I was there.

My sister-in-law urged me to leave the huge task of caring for Dad and seeing to the house repairs for her to figure out. It was time, she said, for me to return to my family. Regardless of the loving and capable care of close family members my grandson needed me specifically. In his 3 ½ year old mind I have become his mother and I had been gone too long.  Because his birth mother dropped out of his life, our lives, my sister-in-law felt he would see my distance as a second abandonment.  Her training in counseling and therapy gave strength to her words.

I believed she was right but found it hard to peel back the fingers of my mind that stayed tightly wrapped around my need to help care for the man who had done so much for me.

I felt sandwiched between my father’s needs and those of my child.

The weekend away had stretched into two weeks almost without notice amid the flurry of medical tests and treatment decisions. I wanted to be cloned into two: One woman for my baby and one for my father.

There was a tear in his eye when I last visited the hospital and told my father that I had to leave. I think we both fear the same thing about that goodbye.

I was on the next flight home to tight hugs and whispered words of “I miss you” and “don’t go, stay here with me.”  I still hear those words every day but with less and less intensity. I am again right where I need to be.

Until the next time the phone rings.

Pass the mayo.


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Learning Slowly and Forgetting Fast: Musings of an Aging Blogger

I have three blog posts started but just can’t seem to take any of them where I want them to go. I’m just not writing well this week.  There are days like that and it’s ok.  I have however been at the keyboard all morning. I’ve previewed my blog in just about all of the 180 plus themes in WordPress.  I love design.

I’m older than dirt so I predate this digital era.  When personal computers became available I had to have one and quickly started a self-taught desktop publishing business (some of you youngsters won’t even know what that is) working from my kitchen table. It did well and catapulted me into a wonderful creative world of writing, design, public relations and even teaching newsletter design at a university.   I love design.

HTML and putting together websites was recreational. I could speak code.

Today I’m struggling to do something beyond change a font with the WordPress Custom Design upgrade. Granted, I’ve never tried to use CSS before but I read about it and read about it, and it’s like I’m brain dead.  Why don’t I have dozens of fabulous pages designed?  I don’t get it.  I love design.

I think the answer resides on my birth certificate, and I don’t mean the fact that I don’t have a snazzy name.  Reality check … the brain works differently as we age. We process slower and remember less. A twenty-something Facebook friend posted a sad note about how there is no cure for memory. It was hard not to jet back a post saying yes there is, it’s called old age.

Part of me says to just forget it (pardon the pun) and use the predesigned pages as they are. After all, a pro put a lot of work into laying it all out for us. I’m a writer now not a designer.  But there is this little rebel voice in the back of my head saying not to take this lying down.  Fight back.  Read.  Study. Experiment.  If it looks ugly or blows up just start over like the old days when it was girl against machine and I never stepped down and let the machine win.

That was then and this is now.

Relax and enjoy the fact that I’ve stopped writing on the back of envelopes and hire a designer or choose an appropriate theme; or scratch and claw my way back toward a thinking, learning, human being by mastering CSS for some little tweak to my page.  I’m not sure which is the high road.  I’m not sure what to do.

I always used to be sure what to do. Being sure of everything is an essential part of youth. But young I am not. That doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent, worthy and productive. It simply means I’m different and still changing.

My creator planned it that way. He loves design.


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Self-Harm Awareness Month: Someone Tear March Out Of My Calendar

The scars beneath the Love

This is self-harm awareness month. I was reminded by a Facebook post on my daughter’s wall and by a teacher friend who mentioned self-harm awareness day in a text to me on the first of the month. I was glad that I wasn’t eye to eye with either of them because I wouldn’t want them to see me flinch.

Every day used to be self-harm awareness day in my house. Cutting is an addiction that crept into our home like evil smoke oozing under a door.

I don’t see anything.

It’ll go away.

Open a window and air it out.

Turn on a fan.

Go out another door and stand in the fresh breeze.

I tried it all. But the smoke kept coming.

It made me choke. It made me cry.

It made me look foolish as I flailed against it with my hands trying to push it away only to find that I was spreading it throughout the house.

I understand, yet I will never understand. My mind comprehends the literature but my heart cannot comprehend the reason. We love our kids. They know we love them. We are good parents.   How can this happen here, in a good home, to us? How could we not know? What did we do wrong?

Pain stops pain? No. Just stop hurting yourself. What do you mean it’s not you that’s hurting you. I want to understand. I’m trying.  Relief?  In open wounds and blood? You’re finding relief?

You may not shave, you must use Nair!  I still had exacto knives in the craft cupboard? I thought I’d  . . . .

The physical pain stops emotional pain. I hear you, really I do, but you’re wrong it just masks it.  That’s good enough for you? You know it’s temporary and you still do this to your body? Why? Stop yelling. I know you’re angry. I know you’re hurting.  I’m trying.  How can I be trying too hard? Come back. I care. I care.

 Blood soaked tissues wadded into cotton balls sharp enough to cut my heart populate dark corners of the house.

Encounters with emotional pain stipe your arms, your belly, your thighs.

I hear your cries for help but cannot answer. I am mute with the very pain you are fighting.

Stop for me….please. You’re right. It’s not about me. It’s your battle. But I’m here. I’ll always be here.

There is hope  –   for us both.

It’s self-harm awareness month.

I am aware

and I love you.