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

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?