Thursday, November 27, 2014

My Thankful Turkey

Thanksgiving traditions bind the years—and family—together

We brined the turkey with good results.
Every year on Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember, I’ve made a Thankful Turkey. It’s probably something my mother started, and like her famous apricot Jello salad, it has become a mainstay of this fourth Thursday in November, a tangible reminder of all I have and how grateful I am. I’ve passed the tradition on to my own children: each year, we trace our hands on brown construction paper, then cut colorful feathers in red and green and blue. A sharpie makes the eyes; a small yellow triangle the beak.

Then we write what we are thankful for. This year, my children are grateful for family, friends, food, and video games.

And I am grateful for them.

This year, my family celebration is small—just three of us. The younger children are with their father, and my oldest son is with his grandma in California. He claims my mother’s Thanksgiving spread is superior to mine, that it is, in fact, “the best Thanksgiving dinner anywhere on planet Earth.” He’s right.

This year, my turkey is small, and after consulting with my husband and my one remaining child, I have decided to forego making pies (none of us actually like them) and stuffing (too many calories). But my son insisted on the Jello. I only make Jello twice a year, and my mom’s recipe, with its pineapple custard and Cool-Whip topping over layers of bananas and marshmallows, is really a culinary delight that rivals anything I’ve eaten in a five-star restaurant.

Jello salad is love.
I am thankful for that Jello, and for everything it represents. One of my first memories is standing barefoot on a step stool (we never wore shoes in Hawaii, where I spent my first few years), stirring and stirring as my mother poured hot water over the orange colored crystals. It seemed like a magic trick to me, the way the liquid would set into something that was not quite a liquid, not quite a solid, a delightful slippery colloid that rolled around in your mouth and jiggled on the plate, casting amber-colored light on the wall when the sun hit it just right.

Each year, I learned more about how to cook a Thanksgiving dinner. At six, I snapped beans. When I was eight, I learned to make rolls, kneading the soft stretchy dough with my balled fists, then pushing it “like a mushroom” (my mother’s words) through a circle I formed with my thumb and forefinger. My rolls were smaller than mom’s, and awkwardly formed at first. But each year, they were more and more round.

At ten, I made the mashed potatoes (“don’t skimp on the butter!”); at twelve, I was I charge of gravy (“use ice cubes to defat the turkey drippings.”). But my mother always made the turkey, rising at five in the morning to prepare the massive bird that would feed six children and a few missionaries.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the food we make for our children is a tangible sign of our love for them. Sure, we could feed them a steady diet of pop tarts, and they would probably grow up just fine. But for me, at least, providing my family with a home-cooked meal made with fresh, wholesome ingredients is a part of an unspoken contract of love I share with them. And Thanksgiving is the culmination of that contract, a culinary exhibition of skills learned over the years.

As I sit in my new kitchen, surrounded by delicious smells and delightful memories, I realize that I’ve finally learned the recipe for a happy Thanksgiving: start with low expectations, add lots of butter, and top the Jello salad with liberal amounts of love, preferably in the form of pineapple cream cheese custard.

My Mom’s Jello Apricot Salad
  • 2 small or 1 large package apricot Jello (peach will also work in a pinch)
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 2 cups cold water

Make the Jello according to package directions. Add 2 sliced bananas and ½ bag small marshmallows. Let the Jello set.

  •       1 cup pineapple juice
  •       2 eggs
  •        1 cup sugar
  •        4 Tbs flour

Cook together until thick, stirring constantly with a whisk. Cool, then fold in 2 packages light cream cheese. Beat until smooth. Spread topping across the Jello. Then top with one package light Cool-Whip. Chill and serve with love.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sins of the Mother

A child's death by suicide is every mother's worst nightmare.
Why Blaming Nancy Lanza for Adam’s Illness Is Easy (and Why We Need to Stop)

“Mom, I don’t want to be anymore.” My son, four years old, his eyes swollen and red from sobbing, burrowed his white duck-fuzz head against my chest.

I froze. “What do you mean?” I asked gently. “Everything is okay now. The nightmare is over.”

He looked up at me. “I want to be a zero,” he replied. “I don’t want to be anymore. I want to be a zero.”

Nothing in the parenting books or classes about preschool behavior prepares you for this: your young child’s desire to end his own life. True, “Michael’s” nightmares were getting worse, and he sometimes sleepwalked. Days could be even tougher: Michael would throw tantrums that lasted for hours and left us both exhausted. I didn’t know what to do.

As he grew older, his suicidal thoughts became more frequent and more detailed. He threatened to kill himself several times a week. Though I normalized many things about my son’s unpredictable and sometimes violent behavior, I never got over the suicide threats. They still haunt me.

For this reason, I followed Brittney Maynard’s tragic life-ending choice with a different perspective than many people. While I respect her struggle and her wish to end it (I too have lost a loved one to cancer), I know many other young people who are diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening illness who repeatedly express a desire to end their own lives. My son was one of them.

So was Adam Lanza.

Now a new report from Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate details the many ways the system failed Adam, and the children he killed at Newtown in December 2012.  One significant finding: Adam was “completely untreated in the years before the shooting and did not receive sustained, effective services during critical periods of his life.”

In fact, if you read the summary of Adam’s early life, it looks like my son’s (and many other children’s) path. Adam had developmental challenges in early childhood. I’m sure at least one person told Nancy, “He’s just a boy,” or “He’ll grow out of it.” School personnel identified social/emotional challenges that became more apparent after fourth grade. I’m sure that’s when they started suggesting that Nancy home school her son, ostensibly for his own good, but actually to prevent disruptions in the learning environment. He was initially evaluated by a costly outside expert (Yale), with a recommendation for a comprehensive treatment plan of the type, no doubt, that bankrupts even moderately wealthy families like the Lanzas. In this respect, my son differs from Adam: we never had access to that kind of resource until my blog about Newtown went viral.

Where my son’s path diverged from Adam’s is at age 13, when my son was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Since that diagnosis and treatment began, my son has not had any violent behavioral outbursts or suicidal thoughts. He is back in a mainstream high school, doing well in all his classes, writing a sequel to his first novel (tentatively entitled The Demigods from Outer Space), and starting a chess club.

But here’s the thing: I don’t attribute my son’s remarkable progress to anything special about my parenting. I was lucky, period. I got a diagnosis for him, and medications that work. And most importantly, I was able to intervene before my son turned 18, despite the many wrong turns we took in the baffling and fragmented mental health care maze early on.

When I tell people—including media professionals—that parents cannot help their sick children after the age of 18, many of them are surprised. After all, if your 20-year old son was in a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury, you would be right there by his side, communicating with his healthcare team, and likely even making decisions about his care if he lacked the capacity to do so.

When your child has a serious mental illness and is over the age of 18, it doesn’t work like that. Serious mental illness is classified as “behavioral health,” and in most cases, people who have behavioral health problems have the right to refuse treatment.   The very public spectacle of Amanda Bynes’s breakdown has introduced many people to this terrible parental conundrum for the first time.

Unlike me, Nancy Lanza was incredibly unlucky. Yet the Child Advocate report, in the time-honored tradition as old as Eve of blaming the mother, concludes that Nancy “enabled” her son and was perhaps in denial of the seriousness of his illness.

I completely understand how that can happen to a parent who has tried, many times, to get services, and failed. I completely understand how that can happen to a mother who is raising a potentially violent son on her own, without support. And I can completely understand how that can happen to a parent in a society that stigmatizes mental illness and medication, that insists on treating mental illness as a “choice” rather than as a disorder.

Through the years, bit by bit, Nancy normalized Adam’s extremely abnormal behavior. In fact, what seems very bizarre to outsiders becomes “normal” for many families who are struggling with mental illness. This concept is difficult to understand unless you have actually lived it. But if you are living it, I know you’re nodding your head in agreement right now.

High profile murder-suicides like Columbine or Newtown bring attention to the problem of mental illness. Yet two years after Newtown, we still don’t have solutions for children and families. And two years later, both this most recent report and the media are still blaming the mother.

What will it take? How many more families will suffer from tragedies because we lack effective treatments?

Mental health professionals tell us that suicide is preventable. But if numbers are not decreasing, it’s clear we need better solutions, beginning with earlier diagnosis and intervention for children who suffer. That’s one area where I agree completely with the Connecticut Child Advocate report.  A child’s death by suicide is every mother’s worst nightmare. Though Nancy Lanza paid the ultimate price when she couldn’t get help for her son, at least she was spared this: she didn’t live to see her child kill— or die by suicide.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Dear Claire Dunphy

From one soccer mom to another, here’s why your Halloween Insane Asylum of Horror was anything but awesome

I'm going with Awesomeland.
You may remember seeing me at the soccer field, the grocery store, the PTA meetings. Like you, I’m pretty Type A when it comes to raising my kids; for many years, I viewed birthday party goody bags as a competitive sport. But then something happened to my family that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: my second son began to show symptoms of a serious chronic illness.

By the time he was in preschool, we knew something was not right. At first, they said maybe it was autism. Later, they would tell us it was Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. There were so many labels and different medications! We took parenting classes, got on wait lists for specialists, and restructured our entire family’s life around the child who had an illness, as many families in our situation do. We also became increasingly isolated from our friends and community, as it became harder and harder to manage our son’s behavioral symptoms.

In the midst of the struggles to find an answer, my marriage disintegrated. It was not my son’s fault. But the stress of raising a child with a serious illness can prove overwhelming sometimes. And suddenly, like many other single moms, I was doing it alone. I remember one time at the soccer field, when my son’s shoe came off, and he couldn’t fix it, and he collapsed, wailing and screaming. I will never forget the look of absolute disgust on your face and the faces of other parents that day, the look that said, “What’s wrong with that mom? Why can’t she control her kid?”

Or the time in the grocery store when my son was screaming “Child abuser! Child abuser!” at me and you threatened to call the police and took down my license plate number. Fortunately, the store manager protected me. “I understand,” he whispered to me. “My nephew has autism.”

Or the time you stood at your front window and gawked when I called the police on my own son, because in America, that’s what we have to do when our children have an uncontrolled brain attack. You stared as three policemen put my son in handcuffs and carried him twisting and screaming to the back of their car. You didn’t hear the policeman say to me, “You’re a good mom, ma’am. Never forget that. We know your son needs help, and we will help him to get it.” (God bless our crisis intervention team-trained police department!).

When you found out my son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital, you didn’t offer to watch my other children so I could visit him. You did not bring me a casserole. Mental illness is not a casserole disease, I guess. Fortunately for us, after nine years, my son finally got the correct diagnosis. I was relieved when I found out he had bipolar disorder, because I respect and admire my friends and acquaintances who are successfully managing their bipolar disorder and living productive, happy lives. This was the future I had thought my own child could never have. Suddenly, we had hope.

I’m a soccer mom like you, Claire. And what happened to my child could happen to your child. Mental illness is not a choice or a character flaw. This is why your Insane Asylum was so offensive to me and to my son. It’s not funny to ridicule people who are sick. Worse, the image of mental illness you portrayed is not remotely what mental illness really looks like.

You seemed to recognize your cruel mistake when your neighbor Ronnie lied to you and told you his wife had spent six months in the “cuckoo farm” (lovely words, those). But what about all the real people—children included—who could have been harmed by your Halloween “joke”? What message did you send your own children? My son has worn a straitjacket too, but his was during a behavioral episode. And like many children with mental illness, he has been institutionalized, though we don’t really have insane asylums anymore. We have something far worse: prison. My son was in juvenile detention four times before he was 12 years old, not because he's a bad kid, but because he had behavioral symptoms of a brain disease.

Claire, here are some truly scary facts about mental illness:
  •  In any given year, only 20 percent of children who need treatment for psychiatric disorders actually get it. 
  • Half of all mental illnesses start before the age of 14. 
  •   65-75 percent of youth in juvenile detention have at least one mental illness.
  • It costs states $5.7 billion per year in the U.S. to incarcerate an average of 93,000 youth. 
  •  There is not a single child psychiatric hospital bed in Orange County. Not one
  • One in five people with bipolar disorder (what my son has) die by suicide. 
  • Worldwide, suicide is the cause of death for more than 800,000 people each year. 
  • Adolescent males with mental illness are being shot and killed by police in ever increasing numbers. 

Many people have defended your actions, saying “It’s Halloween! She was just having fun!” Others have accused me of focusing too much on political correctness. But I don’t think I’m out of line in asking for some basic respect from you. We talk a lot about the word “stigma” when we talk about mental illness. But what we really mean is “discrimination.” Your unrealistic and negative portrayal of mental illness perpetuates that “us vs. them” mentality that allows those of us who are not living with it to continue thinking mental illness is a choice, or that it is caused by bad parenting.

So Claire, as a fellow soccer mom, I’m officially asking for an apology. Your Insane Asylum of Horror, had you let it stand, would truly have been the most frightening house in the neighborhood. But for different reasons than you think.

P.S. To the writers of Modern Family: one in five children in the U.S. will suffer from a serious and debilitating mental disorder at some point before age 18. You have five children on your show. I challenge you to introduce mental illness for one of those children into next season’s plot line. You could use your platform to change people’s perceptions about mental illness in real and meaningful ways.