Years ago, I unexpectedly found myself responsible for a table of about 8 customers at an Advisory Board dinner. If you aren’t familiar with Ad Boards, they are exactly as they sound – a group of people brought together for the purpose of advising you. Ours usually lasted a day and a half and were typically held in 4 star hotels. Seems like this one was at a W. I’d been invited to the meeting to lead a discussion on some patient education materials my company had developed. Earlier in the day I’d done so and as we headed into the hotel ballroom for dinner, I was relieved my obligations were over. Or so I thought. No one bothered to mention until right before we sat down that oh, by the way, I would be the only one from my company at my table and it would be my great fortune to play the role of host. Yikes! My palms immediately began to sweat.
You see, I don’t have an affinity for small talk. Which is to say I pretty much suck at it. Small talk seems pointless. I mean, life is short. If you’re going to have a conversation, well then, have one. Why waste oxygen talking about the weather? Or the price of gas in Muskeegee? Sure, it’s polite to inquire about one’s job and the ages of one’s kids, but time is ticking, so why not get right down to the good stuff? Like one’s most embarrassing moment. Or the thing one prays one’s significant other never finds out. I’m just saying I’m not afraid to ask. Something to think about before you plop down beside me on an airplane and interrupt my novel.
So I wiped my sweaty hands on my dry clean only suit, heaped my plate at the buffet and made my way over to table 5 to play hostess for the evening. One by one, guests joined me; 2 doctors, 2 pharmacists, and 4 nurses, and after everyone was seated and the wine poured, I looked up from my baked chicken to discover all eyes on me. I put down my fork, wiped my mouth with my napkin and tried to say something introductory. Something small talk-ish. I opened my mouth fully intending to say, “Hi everyone. Glad you could all join us this evening. Shall we go around the table and introduce ourselves?” Truly. That was my plan. And then I’d ask, “What do you think about the meeting so far?” and scarf down my food while everyone else talked.
But that’s not what happened. Instead my brain hijacked my professional intentions and my mouth produced something very close to the following:
“So. None of us really know each other and we will likely never meet again. Feels like the perfect place to get that thing off your chest. You know, that thing you really don’t want anyone to know but you really need to tell.”
Eyes widened. Someone giggled. There was a decade-long pause during which I thought, you’ve really stepped in it this time, sister, and then a lady sitting next to me took a big ole swig of wine and said, “my son is turning himself into a pin cushion. He’s got 10 body piercings so far and he just did a nipple. I love him but I can’t hardly talk to him without laughing. He looks so ridiculous, you know?”
And then the floodgates opened.
It was freaking AWESOME. I don’t even remember what anyone said. Except for the mother of the pin cushion. It was just so great to open up the closet and expose all the skeletons. We laughed and groaned and commiserated. One of the doctors racked his brain for something to share. “I’m just too normal,” he shook his head glumly. “That’s OK. Somebody has too be.” And we all roared with laughter.
All of the other tables kept sneaking glances. They couldn’t get over how much fun we were having. Long after everyone else had gone up to their rooms, we were still sitting there, lingering. We didn’t want to leave. We started out strangers and we left there, well, still strangers but a little lighter, as if having tossed a heavy backpack overboard.
A wise friend recently said, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” I believe this, wholeheartedly. Which is why I don’t have secrets. Also because I’m just not good at keeping them and partly as a reaction to growing up in such a dysfunctional family. Putting up a good front was ingrained in me. What other people thought about our family was paramount. I kept all sorts of family secrets – I had to. It was expected. And you know how it made me feel? Ashamed. Damaged. Broken. Less than.
But after I decided to no longer keep those secrets, know how I felt? Empowered. Unencumbered. Lighter. Free.
As an adult I realize you can’t actually control what others think of you. You can try to hide the dark stuff but you will always live in fear of it surfacing. Of someone finding out. It’s actually easier to eradicate the dark stuff than to hide it. To just stop doing the things you’d be horrified if others knew about. But some of our dark stuff is out of our control – it’s not the things we have done but the things others have done to us that we’re ashamed of. We worry what others would think if they knew we were abused or our spouse cheated on us or we were bullied in school or we grew up in foster care. We feel this inexplicable need to protect the people who harmed us by keeping their secrets. We take on their secrets and make them our own. This is unhealthy for both us AND them.
This is the stuff I’ve lost tolerance for as I get older. You don’t want someone to know you’re an alcoholic? Then get sober, no matter what it takes. Don’t tell your child to cover for you. “Daddy’s a deacon at church and it would look bad if others knew he drank. Let’s just keep it in the family. OK?”
Nope. Not doing it. I wonder how many people in our lives would choose to eradicate their dark stuff if we refused to cover for them? Keeping their secret isn’t doing them a favor. It enables their sickness. It helps keep them sick.
Of course, refusing to keep the secret isn’t a walk in the park either. Whether it’s your personally owned secret or one foisted on you second hand, outing it will jeopardize relationships. Some people will judge you. Some people will likely walk away. But are those the kind of people you actually need in your life? I say, good riddance.
The Zipper Girls (besties and participants in the annual Girls Adventure Weekend) introduced me to Ruzzle on our last trip. Ruzzle is a word-search app for all your i-technology. I can
waste spend literally hours playing against myself, the Zipper Girls, and complete strangers. Whenever Stan hears the Ruzzle ten second count-down (each game is timed), he says, “Again? Really?” But when the term “addiction” gets tossed around, I just put on my smug face and say, “Researchers have shown that elderly adults who engage in mentally stimulating activities are less likely to develop dementia.” Is there even such a thing as RA? (Hello, my name is Trophydaughter, and I’m a Ruzzleaddict.) Yep, classifying my Ruzzle time as mental exercise let’s me engage guilt-free.
Seriously, I worry about dementia. That is, when I’m not worrying about the economy, the puffy circles under my eyes, the devaluation of the dollar, how fat I actually look, whether or not I need to own gold, the overall health of our nation, my job, my husband’s job, how outdated my house is, my sister’s health, the deer eating my yard, our healthcare system, and the ultimate fate of social security. When my grandmother died, she didn’t know who I was. The last time I visited her at the retirement community, she said, “Why are you here? Will you please stop following me?” My dad has also had some inexplicable cognitive episodes. Once he was angry with Mom for a week for stealing $20 from his top dresser drawer. Mom said he’d never even kept money in his dresser drawer.
I’ve also noticed some inexplicable cognitive issues with my sister since re-entry into her life. She can’t keep up with her stuff. She is constantly “losing” things, leaving stuff in my car, misplacing her apartment keys. She struggles with memory (as do I) but she will tell me something one day and when I bring it up again, say, “I don’t know why I told you that. That never really happened.” She will chalk a mistake up to a “life lesson” and then repeat the same mistake in a month or two as if she’s completely forgotten what happened the last time. Recently, she allowed a new friend to spend the night at her apartment and woke up to find the friend gone along with her new Nexxus tablet (which she’d saved for for months). Previously, when she’s allowed friends to stay over, they’ve stolen medication, clothing, and food from her. So why does she keep doing it? She will call me 3 or 4 times a day to tell me something because “If I don’t tell you right this minute, I won’t remember it later.” I do this too at times but I’m juggling a LOT of stuff. Which is not the case for Jerri.
She complains about her ability to concentrate. While I tend to tuck these comments away in the “How can I convince Terri I really do need Adderall?” file, I know Jerri truly believes her ability to focus has diminished significantly. She also took an online Autism test recently and scored in the “moderate” range. I’ve observed her awkwardness in many social situations – she doesn’t always pick up on visual cues and she goes down inappropriate conversation paths at times.
It has been challenging to discern what is illness vs. cognitive impairment from medication vs. this mysterious, unnamed “something else.” Just yesterday Jerri said to me, “I’ll never be the person I was before. There’s been too much brain damage.” I refuse to accept this.
The brain is an amazing organ and has the natural ability to repair itself which is called neuroplasticity. Neurons, or nerve cells, are the basic building blocks of the central nervous system which includes the brain. The connections between nerve cells, called synapses, allow information, in the form of nerve impulses, to travel from one neuron to the next. The human brain is made up of trillions of synapses. Its this network that allows us to feel, behave, and think. The more connections in your brain, the greater your cognitive function. When connections are broken, it impacts cognitive ability. Connections that are used regularly become stronger. Connections that aren’t used eventually get eliminated through a natural “pruning” process. “Use it or lose it” is actually a fact when it comes to connections in your brain. Drug use and excessive alcohol consumption can cause connections to deteriorate or break as can exposure to some heavy metals and pesticides, and brain trauma. But because of neuroplasticity, broken connections can sometimes be restored.
Given all this, I was enthralled by an article about CET, Cognitive Enhancement Therapy (Improving Cognition in Schizophrenia) in the Spring edition of the NAMI advocate. Per the article:
Many individuals with schizophrenia and related disorders exhibit signs of impaired cognition: they have problems paying attention, remembering, solving problems, and making decisions. Brain-imaging studies have revealed that individuals with schizophrenia show reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, precisely the area of the brain involved in attention, working memory, and judgement.
Wow, this sounded like Jerri so my first question, since she doesn’t have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, was what are “related disorders”? Turns out that a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was just published on February 28, 2013 (Lancet, Identification of Risk Loci with Shared Effects on Five Major Disorders: A Genome-wide Analysis) that identifies specific gene associations between schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression, and autism. This so fits what I’ve observed in my own immediate family where besides Jerri’s bipolar disorder, others have been diagnosed with depression, ADHD, and mild forms of autism.
But back to CET. CET involves structured activities that exercise the brain and mind. CET Cleveland is the first CET program to be established outside of academia and is currently only available at 21 sites in 10 states, however, new sites are in development in other states and YAY!!!, North Carolina is one of them. (Still trying to track down the location of the site and when the program will be up and running.) The program requires one 3.5 hr session per week for 48 weeks. Each session involves 3 components: computer-based exercises, group-based interactions, and one-on-one coaching sessions. Complete brochure in PDF format is available here. Participants are able to improve overall cognitive functioning by strengthening and developing new neural connections. Through group-based interactions and coaching, they are able to increase their understanding of how society and the workplace function. Most graduates of the program continue to improve and go on to enroll in school, work, or volunteer. To me, CET is a missing link for my sister in her recovery. This is definitely another opportunity Jerri and I will be keeping our eyes on as CET becomes more widely available. Learn more about it at cetcleveland.org.