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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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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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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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.


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When life exceeds fiction

     The pressure’s off.  I quit.

It seems like forever that I’ve been expected to write a book.  I freely admit to a love of writing and I’ve courted the idea for a long time. Of course by book I meant a book, not a novel. I don’t live in a world with room for make believe. My life has been surreal enough that I don’t need to add to the cadre of events with conjured up problems.

Don’t misunderstand. I want to be a writer. I have always wanted to be a writer. I think it’s who I am. (If it’s not, this wouldn’t be a good day to bring it up.)

To write fiction one must read fiction. That seems plain enough.

My attempts to hang out with the characters of Danielle Steele or David Baldacci never seem to get beyond one sitting. At the next reading I generally pick up an alternative selection from among the how-to books or better yet a magazine that allows me to pseudo-read and escape the novel I live in.

I have to read How Children Learn so I can be a guiding hand in the fuzzy world of learning disabilities. I have to read The BiPolar Child or A Bright Red Scream to find out why children want to harm themselves or others. Why, oh why, would I want to spend countless hours creating fictional people only to give them dragons to slay?

Well, write about your own life they say.

I can’t. It’s too unbelievable to be fiction.

Once upon a time I did write a book on a disability and it could have been a good book, a great book, if only I’d been willing to listen to the editor, but instead it sits as a box of typewritten pages. That’s a story for another day.

A year or so ago I bent to the pressure and tried writing a novel (which by the way is not a good way to start a first-fiction experience – the old eat an elephant one bite at a time adage, yada, yada, yada).

I have a requirement to overthink things.  I read how-to-write-a-novel books (that was fun) and bought multiple writing software programs that had me so wrapped up in structure I forgot I was crafting a story.  Learning new terms was great, but there was a continuing expectation in these programs that I fill blank spaces with fictional ideas.

I tried, I really did. But I’m done.

From now on I will sit in front of this glaring screen or in a waiting room with a notepad for at least a little time each day and require myself to write something. A paragraph, an essay, rambling thoughts, insightful musings.  It really doesn’t matter – I’m just going to write. But take heed – some of it may end up here and I can’t tell you what topic you’ll find.  But it won’t be a novel.

Life just isn’t like that.