Down and Possibly Out of Durham

Having Jerri in my life has opened my eyes to a whole world of evil that I’d previously been able to pretend didn’t exist. Two weeks ago today, Stan and I took Jerri to buy a scooter. She’d found one for $750. We told her if she saved up half, we’d match it. For two months, she ate at the nearby shelter to save the $200 she normally spends on food for the scooter. She was so proud of herself for saving that money. “I’ve never saved up for anything in my whole life,” she told me. I was proud of her too. I was worried about the ultimate fate of the scooter, worried that she would tire of bringing it into her apartment after riding or that she’d get lazy and forget to put the lock on the tires when she left it in a parking lot and someone would steal it. But we talked about those things and she agreed she had to be vigilant. Ultimately, there are lessons in life that all of us have to experience for ourselves.

What I’d never even considered is that while she was stopped at an intersection waiting for cars to pass, someone would come up behind her, knock her off the scooter, and take it out from under her. That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday afternoon.

I drove over after the robbery to check on Jerri and talk with the police. One of her neighbors had given her a Klononpin to calm her down but Jerri has weird reactions to benzodiazepines and she came off as totally wasted. Its really frustrating to me that Jerri’s first reaction to anything difficult in life is to self-medicate.

While we waited for the police, Jerri said (slurry but no less sincere), “This is a terrible place to live. How can I ever better myself here? I can’t get a job without transportation. I can’t have transportation if anyone can just knock me off a scooter and take it. What am I supposed to do now, Terri? It was really hard saving up that money. I went without food for it. I don’t know if I can do it again. And he was so mean, Terri. He was so mean the way he took it from me and the things he said. How can people be so mean?”

It’s a honest question. I feel a little shell-shocked over the whole incident myself, like an incendiary device has just exploded in my face. I can not understand the pure evil that invades a person’s soul and justifies yanking a scooter out from under a tiny, skinny, white woman with mental illness who is obviously quite poor herself. It fills me with such rage that people can be so mean, so self-centered, so evil, that WE can be so unloving to each other. In my head, I’ve downplayed how dangerous a neighborhood Jerri lives in. I’ve driven around there in my Lexis, by myself, at twilight. I’ve told myself that these people are poor, that doesn’t mean they are evil. But there is a certain desperation that breeds in extreme poverty. One that discounts even the life of other human beings. One that says, I’m going to get mine by whatever means and the end will justify it. I’m reminded how far we have fallen from the world God originally intended.

Later in the week, I had the privilege of sitting next to a distinguished, older gentlemen on a flight back from Albany. He is 68, divorced, and an architect for a prestigious firm that is rebuilding downtown Durham. I was surprised by his age. He is dark-skinned and if I’d had to guess, I would have estimated 55. When I commented on this, he confided that he was quite frankly surprised to still be alive. Both of his parents died young; his father was in his thirties and his mother in her fifties. He saw everyday as a gift. His firm designed the Durham Bulls Park. He lives in a condominium downtown and loves what is happening in Durham. He has lived here since 1971. As we talked about the revitalization of downtown, I mentioned that there are still some areas that are quite dangerous like Liberty Street where my sister lives. His eyes widened and he said, “I have two grown children and I’ve always told them there are some places you never need to go. You just don’t. And Liberty Street is one of them.”

I called Catherina, Jerri’s case worker, and told her what happened. “We need to find Jerri a place to live in a safer neighborhood. She’s too vulnerable here. She’s too easy a target.”

“Well you know she’s on the waiting list for Stuart Heights. That’s actually the best place for her. The other places where she qualifies have had a lot of shootings. I don’t think we want to move her to a place where there are shootings.”

Duh. You think?

“I’ll check with one of my coworkers about other options. She really specializes in housing. Maybe there are some new options I don’t know about.”

In talking to Jerri about it, she raised Caramore as a possibility. The Caramore Community was an option I’d identified not long after Jerri moved to Durham. Its a structured program for people with mental illness which prepares them and transitions them back into the community. As part of the program, you work 30 hours a week, first for Caramore and then eventually you transition to a job in the community with an employer like Lowes, Target, or Whole Foods. When I first investigated Caramore, Jerri was not sold on the option. She was not sure she was physically able to work 30 hours a week. And she wasn’t that stable on her medications. But now the timing seems right. She is mentally and physically healthier than I’ve seen her in years. She has an interest in working. She’s concerned about losing her disability but Caramore has financial advisors that work with members to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Caramore is located in Carrboro about a half hour from Durham. Joining the program would get Jerri out her neighborhood as she would be living on the Caramore campus. Telecare has been an absolute lifesaver from the perspective of getting Jerri stable and keeping her from homelessness. But they seem to be not so great at transitioning their clients to independence. Caramore excels at that and is a logical next step in Jerri’s recovery. Caramore would become her mental health provider from a Medicaid perspective and since Medicaid won’t cover both, we’d have to leave Telecare behind.

So this week, instead of succumbing to depression and wrapping herself up into a tight cocoon of despair like she did when her laptop was stolen, Jerri called and asked me for the phone number for Caramore. She spoke with the Admissions Director and then called me back.

“Would you like a birthday present, Terri?”

“Sure, whatcha got for me?”

“An appointment at Caramore on your birthday at 10 am. Can you take me?”



Mind Your Head

Seventeen years ago when I began working for my employer, I provided analytic support for disease education program development. Migraine was my first assignment. I didn’t know a lot about migraine so I did what I always do, I read everything about it I could get my hands. I learned about auras, visual or sensory disturbances that can sometimes precede an attack. Like most people, I get the occasional headache but these were never severe or debilitating pain which is what I had always associated with migraine. But as I read, I began thinking that maybe the fuzzy vision I get sometimes before a headache was actually aura. Come to think of it, weren’t most of my headaches one sided, throbbing pain? I became convinced I had migraines.

Then I was reassigned to the asthma team. Again, I didn’t know much about asthma so I googled and read everything I could find. I began to wonder if I didn’t have asthma. Afterall, there was that nagging dry cough that I could never seem to get rid of, often the primary symptom for adults diagnosed with asthma. And certain times of the year, I did feel like it was hard to breath. And then running from one end of the Dallas airport to the other when the plane train was out of service, I experienced what I can only describe as a full-blown asthma attack. I was coughing and couldn’t stop, couldn’t catch my breath, tears running down my face, strangers asking me if I was okay. Somehow, at forty-something, I was certain I had managed to develop asthma.

So when my employer wanted to reassign me to the oncology team, I politely declined. Momma may have raised a whacked out hypochondriac but she didn’t raise no fool.

I’m not the only one who is highly susceptible to the power of suggestion. We can actually prime our minds to respond in certain ways. There’s an excellent illustration of this in a CrossPointe podcast I listened to recently. In it, Steve shares a psychosocial study conducted at MIT where college students were randomly divided into three groups and asked to unscramble words in a given amount of time. They thought they were being tested on their ability to do word puzzles. Not the case. What they didn’t know is the words they were asked to unscramble had a theme to them. The words in Group 1’s puzzles were things like patient, polite and careful. The words in Group 2’s puzzle were things like impatient, rude, intrusive and interrupt. Group 3 was the control group and they were given random words to unscramble. After completing the puzzles, the students were told to turn them in to a professor. But when they got to his desk, a faux student was already there asking a bunch of questions about the exercise and acting like he didn’t understand. Students from the control group waited about 7 or 8 minutes before interrupting and saying, “Hey, just want to turn in my paper.” Students from the “patient” group waited 10-11 minutes before interrupting. Students from the “inpatient” group interrupted at only 4 minutes. Hmmmm. Interesting.

I thought of this when in a recent conversation, Jerri said, “The reason I always give you my money when I get my check is because I’ve always thought I can’t be trusted not to blow it. But I’m not so sure that’s the case. I mean I hear a voice in my head that tells me that and now I’m starting to think that its Mom’s voice and I don’t have to believe it.”

Suffice it to say, Jerri is thinking more clearly these days than she has in the past several years. I think she’s right. Mom has said a lot of negative and destructive things to Jerri for decades. In regard to money, I’ve heard her tell Jerri she’ll just blow anything she gets. I can’t stress enough how important it is NOT to embrace everything people say to you about you. Or even all the things you say about you to yourself. We all live out what we believe about ourselves. So choose very carefully what you believe. And give yourself a lot of grace. Because life is hard and we all mess up. That doesn’t mean we ARE messed up.

BTW, the conversation with Jerri also led to a discussion about what it means to “hear” voices and whether schizophrenics actually audibly hear voices or like the rest of us, the voices are just the random thoughts that pop in our head. So I, uh, read up on it and, this is interesting, when schizophrenics hear voices, the part of the brain that lights up in a scan is the center that processes external sounds. So to them, it is an actual audible voice. Also at, I found this fascinating albeit entirely creepy simulation of what a schizophrenic experiences that was developed by Janssen Pharmaceutica. After watching, I wanted to hug the man talking to himself on the park bench in DC who I passed on my way to dinner. How completely horrific to be endlessly bombarded with destructive voices. Warning: this video is not for the faint-hearted.

So this is just a reminder to be careful what you invite into your brain. Our minds are more absorbent than the leading brand.

Suddenly Surrounded

“Well, there’s lightning, folks. Looks like we’ll have to clear the beach.” Pam walks up the dune to the nest to consult with John and Darrelyn, the other turtle patrol volunteers monitoring the hatch.


Susan, JD and I trade glances. Granted it has been an unusual hatch but the nest IS still hatching. We’ve witnessed six loggerhead turtles crawl out so far. Normally, after the first one appears, there’s a wild churning in the sand and it erupts with hatchlings. But not this nest. These hatchlings have arrived one by one, making a solitary march down to the surf. There are still about 49 little loggerheads in the nest based on stats recorded at the time the eggs were transferred to higher ground from their original site. Lightning or no lightning, we can’t just leave.

These turtles seem tired. They need our help. I’ve seen quite a number of hatchings. Usually the babies hit the sand and its like a race. But not these guys. They’ve crawled a few feet, stopped, rested, then crawled a few more. It’s no telling how long they’ve been trying to break free.

Last night a hard rain packed down the sand and the morning sun baked it into a thick crust. Todd, the head turtle patrol guy for our stretch of beach, stopped by around 8:30 pm and broke up the crust with his hand. Seconds later, the first hatchling emerged. Darrelyn, John and Pam guess the hatchlings have been trying to break through that crust for hours. It appears to have sapped their strength.

It is also low tide. That means a long trek to the water from the nest situated halfway up the dune. The turtle patrol smoothed out a path to the ocean to ease the journey–every bump in the sand is a hill to climb when you’re the size of a silver dollar–but the launching pad ends a good thirty feet from the surf. John hand-carried the last three turtles from the end of the ramp to the water.

And the beach is quite dark. There’s no moon and turtles find their way to the ocean by following the light along the horizon. We’ve had to guide each turtle down to the water with artificial light using special red flashlights. Without them, the only light on the beach is from houses about a quarter-mile away. Following the house lights would take the turtles off course, on a path running parallel to the ocean. The longer they are on the beach, the more likely they are to be eaten by ghost crabs.

“Todd said to cover the nest back up if we have to leave,” I hear John tell Darrelyn.

“They can’t do that!” Susan’s jaw drops. “You can see how tired these turtles are! Why don’t they just help them out?”

“Dang turtle Nazi’s”, JD mutters under his breath.

“Ok, here’s what we’ll do,” I lean in closer so only JD and Susan can hear. “We’ll take our chairs and leave the beach, but the minute the turtle patrol is gone, we’ll come back and finish helping these turtles to the water. Even if we have to dig the hole open again.”

“You’re going to get us arrested,” JD says. “Do you know what they do to people who dig up turtle nests?”

“I’m in,” says Susan.

Everyone else is folding up their chairs. Ruth and Ian are halfway down the beach to their house, when John says, “Hold up, everybody, hold up. We’re gonna help ’em out. Somebody take a red light to the end of the ramp.” Quickly we all reposition and John starts scooping turtles out of the hole.

20120908-170520.jpgIt takes every last one of us to get the hatchlings down to the surf. With no strong light at the water’s edge, the turtles keep trying to veer off path. I choose a hatchling and shine my red light on the ramp just inches ahead of her nose. Immediately, she scoots toward it with renewed energy, like FINALLY she knows which direction to take.

As I guide her to the end of the ramp, I think about my young friend M who is trying to help care for her mother who’s bipolar. M and her mom moved in together a while back. M’s mom struggles with stability despite faithfully taking her medicine. She’s on disability and doesn’t manage money well. M confided that she doesn’t know how to help other than just being there. Her mom has been in the hospital for over a month now, M is interviewing for a job in another town, and has given a 60-day notice on their lease.

“I don’t know where Mom will live when she gets out,” M said, “but I feel like I have to take care of me.”

I told her about Jerri’s housing situation and about Telecare. I explained the ACTT model and the services they provide including money-management and transportation to doctor visits. M was impressed.

“That’s exactly what Mom needs. How did you find out about all these resources?”

So I shared my story. About how Jerri’s former Narcotics Anonymous sponsor had connected me with a woman at NAMI NC. How she had shared the basics of the mental health system in Durham and told me about the NAMI Family-to-Family course. How at that course, I’d learned about support groups, education meetings, club houses, and other resources in Durham. About how one thing led to another until we discovered Telecare.

Like this baby loggerhead, it was as if someone was shining a red light just in front of my nose showing me the way step-by-step. And as I talked to M, it felt like I was also turning on a red light for her.

As I hand off my turtle at the end of the ramp to Darrelyn who then walks her out to the water, I think about the many hardships still ahead for all of us — the turtle, M, and for me. Our journeys are similar. We are on our own, abandoned by family who don’t understand mental illness and want no part of it. We butt our heads repeatedly into a crusty ceiling until we’re exhausted. We finally make headway to discover the path is quite long and the night very dark. What joy to be suddenly surrounded by concerned friends with red lights and warm hands who carry us, if only for a little while, to the next leg of our journey.

This is what you, my blogging friends, do for me.