The Lucky One

During the 8 months I was on my OMG-it’s-cancer blog sabbatical, a lot happened. I mean, a LOT. Not just with me, but also with Jerri and the rest of the family. I need to catch you up. But where to begin?

Hmm, let’s see. I could tell you about Jerri’s eviction and frantic search for new housing. Housing for New Hope, the organization managing Jerri’s apartment complex didn’t call it eviction, of course. They called it “helping Jerri to achieve her goals.” In all fairness, Jerri did want to move to a safer part of town but I don’t know. She was told she had to vacate the premises by October 1. She was given 8 weeks to find a new place and that’s not much time when you’re unemployed with bad credit and no deposit saved. Not to mention your income is only $700 a month and there’s a waiting list for all subsidized housing in the city. That reeks of eviction to me. Just stinks to high heaven. Plus your sister, who would normally help you is recovering from a thyroidectomy and treatment, which Hap, the apartment manager knew. It’s as if someone was purposely taking advantage of my incapacitation and inability to advocate for her.

I could tell you how Jerri found an apartment all on her own–a brand new apartment in an elderly gentleman’s home with a separate entrance in a good part of town with utilities included for $600 a month. Her new landlord interviewed several prospective tenants then called Jerri to say he really wanted her to take the apartment. I could tell you how she teared up when she told me. “He really wants me. Nobody ever really wants me!”

I could tell you about dumpster diving for a microwave that works just fine except for the LCD panel. Dumpster-diving. I can check that off my bucket list.

I could tell you about Jerri’s job search, because let’s face it, no one can live on $100 a month after paying for housing. I could tell you how “felony friendly” companies like Walmart and Sears hired her and then took back their offers when her background check included a 21 year old felony charge. A charge, BTW, that our parents filed. I could tell you how she persisted and again, all on her own, found a part-time position doing in-store promotion for a new dog food.

Those are all great stories filled with indignation, wonder, potentially useful insights, and tossed with just the right amount of snarkiness. But perhaps I’ll leave those for another day. What I find I most want to tell you about is this, a recent conversation with my sister. She was in her new apartment which is virtually unfurnished, sitting on an air mattress, which aside from one chair is the only place to sit other than the floor, and she looked around at the dumpster microwave in her tiny kitchen, her ancient TV on a bookcase (another dumpster find), and said, “You know, I’m lucky.”

I looked around too, and said, “How’s that, Jerri?”

Her eyes lighted. “You probably don’t think so because you’ve got a nice house and a good job making good money. You drive a Lexis and can pretty much afford whatever you want. But for a person like me, I’m really lucky.

“Just look at all I have!” She swept the room with her hand. “I’ve got a nice, safe apartment with heat and air conditioning. A lot of people like me don’t have that. They live in a ratty boarding house, or a group home, or they go to a shelter at night or sleep in box on the street.

She got up and took the 2 steps required to reach her tiny kitchen and threw open the refrigerator door. “I’ve got a refrigerator full of food.” (Her case worker had taken her to a food bank that week.) “Just look at how much food I’ve got! I can eat for weeks and weeks. A lot of people like me don’t have enough to eat.

She motioned to her coat closet. “I’ve got a coat and plenty of clothes and shoes.” (She buys everything at the Durham Rescue Mission store or Good Will.) “A lot of people like me don’t have clothes like I do.

She sat back down on the air mattress and looked up at me. “I’ve got you and Catherina (her case worker and friend). A lot of people like me don’t have anyone. They’re all alone. But I’m not. I’ve got you.

“When you think about all I have, I’ve got so much more than a lot of people. I’m just, you know, really lucky. For someone like me.”

You know, when I embarked on this grand adventure of helping my sister recover from bipolar, I never expected to be the one who gained anything from the experience. Life is just full of surprises.

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Defining Moments

In his book Soulprint, Mark Batterson writes:

“But I think it’s generally true that we are largely shaped by a small handful of experiences. . . Collectively, they form our internal operating system. They are the source code that determines the way we look at life. And if you’re going to discover your soulprint, you need to mine your memory for those defining moments.”*

I’m currently on a mission to discover myself. Call me crazy, but I feel like I tried so hard to please my mother as a child and young adult, that I lost an essential part of who I am. Subconsciously I suppressed that part because it didn’t appear to match up with what Mom wanted in a daughter.

From the moment I first breathed air, I think I was watching and listening. I entered a world where Mom was at odds with my sister. She wasn’t happy with anything Jerri did. The constant criticism threw me into survivor mode. I must have sensed my spirit couldn’t take it if Mom turned on me the same way so I tried desperately to be all those things she criticized Jerri for not being. Smart, good, well-mannered, obedient. If I could just be the daughter she wanted then she would love me. Or so I thought.

BTW, it didn’t work. And now I’m just totally screwed up.

So how do I find me? Good question. It’s not like I need to quit my job and backpack Europe for 6 months (although that would be AWESOME). I mean, I was standing right here when I lost me. The real me must be around here somewhere. She couldn’t have gotten that far.

Why is this so important? Why can’t I just go with who I am now? Because I want to live an authentic life. I want to narrate my own story in first person. To allow my mom or anyone else to narrate my story for me is to live a secondhand life. And that is just sad.

I want to be the person God intended. He put a lot into making me the person that I am. To reject that is like telling a kid his finger-painting sucks. When in fact, it’s a masterpiece when seen through his eyes. You have to embrace your true identity if you are going to fully experience all that God has for you here on planet earth. And I want the full experience. Because I can’t get my money back.

So I’m following Mark’s suggestion and mining my memories. Here is my earliest one. It feels somewhat prophetic.

    I’m standing on the banks of a creek with my sister and Sammy. I can’t see Sammy’s face, he’s behind me, but in all my memories of him, there is no face. There’s no head actually. It’s like I’m so small and he’s a giant beanstalk rising so high into the sky that his head is obscured by the clouds. So I don’t remember what he looks like. I know, however, that his skin is coffee-colored and creased with wrinkles – he is Marshallese – and he’s dressed in the khaki uniform of a U.S. marine.

    Sammy, an old bachelor, takes care of us from time to time. Maybe more frequently. Okay, a lot. So often in fact that my earliest memories, all of my Kwajalein memories, are of him and of Jerri. (We lived on Kwajalein, one of the Marshall Islands, until I was about four.) My parents are mysteriously absent.

    20121215-150415.jpg

    In my memory, there’s a bridge made of concrete blocks to my left. The creek runs under it and the arch is tall enough that Jerri and I can almost stand up and walk through. Jerri is near the bridge, crouching down in a cotton one-piece that ties at the shoulder and has elastic around the leg holes. She’s near the water’s edge picking up pebbles along the sandy bank. Her hair is mid-cheek-length and golden from the sun. It’s thick with a slight wave to it and held back on one side with a sky-blue barrette. The creek, itself, is pretty shallow, maybe a foot deep and about five across.

    It’s like being in a Peanuts movie where the adults are represented by only the “mwah mwah mwah” of their voices off camera. Sammy’s voice is behind me.

    20121215-150546.jpg“Stay away from the water now. There are electric eels in that creek. They’ll shock you if you touch them. You don’t want to be electrocuted, do you?”

    Electrocuted. How do I understand the meaning? I’m at most three. Somehow I do. I hear his words as if spoken by God. “Do not touch your hand to the waters of the creek lest the eels electrocute you and you shall surely die.” My chest flutters and my hands start to quiver.

    “Come back, Jerri. Don’t go there!”

    She tilts her head and laughs as she crabwalks closer to the stream. She is, maybe, four. She holds her hand out over the water, eyes sparkling, two rosy circles in the middle of her cheeks, smirking back at us.

    “Be careful now, Jerri.”

    Sammy’s warning only makes her more daring. She is fearless, my sister. Stupid, yes, but completely without fear. She is the most fearless person I will ever know. She dips her hand in the water.

    The eels are going to get her. I know this with every fiber of my being. She’s going to die unless I save her. It’s all up to me. She’s my responsibility. It’s the very first thought I can remember.

*Excerpt From: Batterson, Mark. “Soulprint.” Multnomah Books, 2011-01-18. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright. Check out this book on the iBookstore: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/soulprint/id420449517?mt=11”


The New Kid

A few weeks ago, I mentioned my desire to write a memoir about sisterhood and sanity. The concept isn’t well-developed but I imagine it as a series of essays, some from childhood and some current day, that as a whole illustrate the complicated relationship which exists between sisters. Here’s a sample. This is a little lengthier than what I typically post. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated!

The doorbell rings and Jerri and I race Fluffy to the front door. He jumps up, propping himself against one of the skinny windows that frames it. On his hind legs, he is bigger than me. Mom has shaved his face, paws and a section of his tail leaving a Pom-Pom of white hair at the end. He looks ridiculous, like a sissy, like we ought to call him Jacque or Pierre la Poo. Jerri shoves him aside and opens the door a crack. She plugs it with the left side of her body so I have to stand on tippy toes to see who is out there.

Fluffy, back on all fours, tries to wedge his face between her waist and the door frame. I grab his collar and dig in my heels. Fluffy is a runner and with us in control of the door, he can practically taste freedom.

Uncertainty flashes across the face of the kid standing on the other side. He is short and barefoot with a snotty nose and a scab about the size of a silver dollar on his left knee. His blonde hair is in a buzz cut. He stands on our porch with his feet apart and his hands on his hips. He lifts his chin and squints at us.

“I’m Michael Nadifer. That there is my house,” he points to the house on the corner where the “For Sale” sign used to be. “My daddy is a police officer.” He puffs out his chest.

Crap. I wanted a girl. One my age. This neighborhood already has too many boys and Jerri has claimed Dottie and Martha as her own.

“Whoop de doo,” Jerri stretches to her full height and looks down on him. “Whaddya want?”

“I said my daddy is a police officer. What’s your’un do?”

“None of your bees wax.” (Which is to say neither of us actually know.) “Why don’t you run along home now?”

“I can stay if I want. My daddy owns this here house–he’s a police officer. He owns this whole neighborhood.”

“Your daddy does NOT own this house. My daddy does. Just ’cause he’s a police officer – don’t mean squat.” Jerri crosses her arms and gives him the evil eye. Fluffy senses an opportunity and tugs harder.

“How old are you?” I holler from behind the dog.

He ignores me and raises up on tippy toes, eye-to-eye with my sister. “Does too! He has a gun.”

“Then why don’t you go home and play with it?” Jerri slams the door in his face. I let go of Fluffy and massage the palm of my hand.

“Who was it?” Mom yells from the kitchen.

“The new kid from the house on the corner,” Jerri hollers back.

“Does he want a Popsicle?”

“No!” She opens the door a crack to see if he’s still there. He is and sitting on the steps as if he lives here. She closes the door again.

“Snot-nosed brat!” It takes me a minute to realize she doesn’t mean me.

I walk into the kitchen. The counter tops are covered with foil-wrapped food, condiments, and stacks of tupperware. Mom, in her orange rubber gloves, is scrubbing the inside of the avocado green refrigerator which stands completely empty.

“Mom, that kid says his dad owns our house because he’s a police officer and now he’s sitting on our porch and he won’t leave.”

“Oh, well, just ignore him, honey. He’ll go away eventually.” Her voice emanates from the bowels of the vegetable crisper.

I walk back into the hall. Jerri is sitting in the bay window in the living room which overlooks the porch.

“Mom says ignore him.”

She doesn’t look at me. I climb up beside her and peer out the window. Michael Nadifer stands up and walks off across our front yard to his house. Jerri goes to her room and returns with a notebook and a pencil in hand and her binoculars strung around her neck. She’s been reading Harriet the Spy. She climbs back onto the window seat, lifts the binoculars and scribbles in the notebook. I try to read over her shoulder and she hunches up, covering it with her other arm.

Michael Nadifer walks back across our yard. He’s carrying an armful of stuffed animals which he positions on our porch. He sets the Hamburgler and Ronald McDonald on the floweredy plastic cushions of the wrought iron love seat. He places a big, dirty Snoopy and a yellow dump truck on the glass topped table. He disappears across the yard again.

Jerri jumps up and and out the front door. I watch from the bay window as she picks up the Hamburgler and examines its face. She sets it back down and surveys the rest with hands on hips. Glancing across the yard, she comes back in the house.

Michael Nadifer crosses the yard with another armful. This time there’s a GI Joe in full camouflage, a sock monkey, and a green alligator with mouth open and a full set of white felt teeth. He disappears again.

“Mom! He’s putting all his toys on our porch!”

“Just ignore him, dear!”

Jerri’s mouth is a grim line. What’s wrong with Mom anyway? Doesn’t she know anything about kids? Doesn’t she know this means war?

Michael Nadifer makes two more trips. Jerri nibbles the eraser then scribbles furiously in her notebook.

“What are we gonna do?” I ask her.

“Follow me.”

Out on the front porch, she fills my arms with Michael’s stuff and then fills her own. I follow her across the yard and then across the dirt road that runs between our house and his, which is Lancelot Drive, a name almost as ridiculous as Fluffy’s haircut. We dump the stuff at his front door.

The screen door slams on the house next door and Nathan walks over laughing his guts out. He points to his front porch and cracks up all over again. There are toys covering the rockers and sitting on the front steps. Tears squeeze out of the corner of his eyes. He falls to his knees and holds onto his sides.

Honestly. How much crap does this kid own?

“He says,” Nathan gasps for breath, “he says his Dad–his Daddy is a police officer and he, and he owns my, he owns my house!” Nathan collapses on his back in another spasm and wipes at his eyes with the back of his sleeve.

We spend the next hour launching toy bombs from Nathan’s porch into Michael Nadifer’s yard.

We hate him, Jerri and me. It’s the first time we’ve been united in hate. It’s the first time we’ve been united in anything besides our mutual dislike of each other. Jerri is the kind of sister that makes you wish you were an only child.

Jerri tells Dottie about Michael Nadifer. Dottie hasn’t yet had the pleasure. She lives down the hill at the end of Malabar Drive. We are riding our bikes up and down Lancelot. At Sheraton Park, we make a u-turn, peddle fast to Michael Nadifer’s house and then coast down the hill to Malabar. We make a u-turn and climb the hill peddling standing up. Jerri, Dottie, and me. I get to ride bikes with them now. Since Michael Nadifer moved into the neighborhood.

Every summer, Mom pays some men in a big truck to spray oil on Lancelot. She says the cars driving back and forth stir up the dust and it seeps into our house and coats the furniture. She tries to enlist the neighbors support to finance the oil coat. Some years she’s successful and Lancelot gets oiled all the way to Martha’s house. This year, the oil stops at the left edge of our lawn, right before Michael’s house. The Nadifer’s did not want to chip in.

I plop back down on the groovy yellow and green flowered banana seat of my Sear’s bike and raise my feet off the pedals as I cross the oil line. Michael Nadifer’s head pops up from the ditch between his house and Lancelot and he pummels us with gravel. Standing up, we pedal hard to Sheraton Park where we make a u-turn. As we near his house again, Michael Nadifer rushes up and out of the ditch in an ambush, brandishing a stick like a blade. He pokes it into the spokes of Dottie’s front wheel. Jerri and I slam the brakes and skid to a stop as Dottie’s bike flies end over end in slow motion. Dottie crashes onto the un-oiled portion of Lancelot. When she stands, the entire side of her left leg is bloody and encrusted with gravel. Her face is smeared with dirt. Tears well up as her lip starts to quiver. There ain’t nothing Dottie hates worse than to cry like a girl.

20121209-121042.jpgWe throw down the bikes and dive into the ditch in front of our house. The bikes lay on their sides between Michael and us like metallic road kill, the back wheel on mine still slowly spinning.

We pelt Michael with dirt clods and gravel, anything we can get our hands on. It’s three against one, he’s losing and he knows it. Desperation makes him bolder.

“Aghhhhhhhhhhhh!” Like a Kamikaze, he lifts a melon-sized boulder overhead and attacks. Just yards from us, he hurls it and hits me square in the gut, knocking me over like a bowling pin. Jerri and Dottie nail him with gravel until he cries like a baby, tucks tail, and runs home to Mommy.

“Dorotheeeeeeeey!” From the bottom of the hill, comes the high-pitched yodel of Virginia, Dottie’s mom. She limps over to her bike, mounts it, and picks out a few pieces of gravel from her leg. “Gotta go,” she says wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

Tears run down my dirt streaked cheeks as I lift my striped tank to watch the purple bruise spread cross my tummy. Jerri leans over to get a closer look.

“C’mon,” she says. “We’re telling Mom.”

Inside, we find Mom in the kitchen with a sink full of green beans floating in water. She’s snapping off the ends and breaking the beans into sections which she tosses into a pot.

“Momma, look what Michael Nadifer did.” Jerri lifts my shirt. Mom dries her hands on her apron and squats down on her knees to take a look. She looks at me and then at Jerri. Slowly she rises and returns to the sink.

“I see, ” she says. “And what, may I ask, did you do to provoke him?”

We are out on the front porch, on the cast-iron loveseat, swinging our feet which don’t quite reach the ground, incredulous that Mom will do nothing. I am crying in earnest now, heartbroken at being so wrongfully accused.

“Come with me,” Jerri says. I know she means business because she takes my hand. We cross the yard and then Lancelot. We take a right on King’s Court and then into Michael Nadifer’s driveway. Jerri marches resolutely, chin held high. I lag behind, feeling bashful, head down and thumb in my mouth. The police car is in the drive. Jerri tugs me up the steps behind her and rings the doorbell. Michael’s mom opens the door.

“M’am, we were riding our bikes back and forth on Lancelot and your son picked up a big ole rock and threw it at my sister.” She lifts my shirt. “See?”

Michael’s mom’s eyes narrow. She turns and hollers back into the house, “Michael did you hit this here girl with a rock?”

“No, Momma,” he snivels.

She turns back. “He says he didn’t do it.”

My sister sweeps her hand toward my stomach. “Clearly, he did.”

Mr. Nadifer, still in uniform, appears behind her. “What’s this?” he asks.

Jerri repeats her story. Mrs. Nadifer silently excuses herself and vaporizes back into the house. Mr. Nadifer examines my bruise, studies our faces, and begins unbuckling his belt.

“MICHAEEELL” he thunders and shuts the door. Just before it closes, we hear Michael wailing in the background. “I didn’t do it, Daddy. I didn’t!”

Jerri bounces as we walk back over to our yard. “Boy, is he gonna get IT!”

She tousles my hair and scoops up her bike which has been lying in the road all this time. With a running start, she hops on, giving a three-finger salute over her shoulder as she coasts down the road toward Dottie’s house.

Uprighting my own bike, I pause for a second to watch my big sister ride off into the sunset.

Photo credit: lord the air smells good today / Foter /CC BY-NC-ND


Confessions of an Angry Sister on the Verge of Becoming Her Mother

Apparently, Jerri and I aren’t speaking right now.

On Thursday, I had a mandatory Diversity training class at work. This is about the fourth one of these I’ve attended in my 17 years with the company. They always throw me into a foul mood. Maybe because I don’t like being reminded how much the world sucks sometimes or how despicable people can be to each other. Maybe because I always leave more fully aware of what a rotten person I am and that no matter how much I hate it, I still stereotype and I still have biases. Maybe because it brings back memories from childhood of the nasty racist sentiments vocalized by my parents and grandparents who lived in Birmingham, AL during the heyday of the civil rights movement. Sometimes I cringe at the sewage contaminating my gene pool. It makes me want to gargle with chlorine and take a long, scalding shower. Or maybe because there is always some squeaky white male in the group acting all shocked and horrified that anyone in this day and age would discriminate against women or people of color at our company. Pa-leaseeee!

So when I left the meeting in my foul mood, I checked my phone and found a message from Jerri. (Mental note, never call your sister when you yourself are in a bad place. Just don’t.) Jerri has had a number of teeth pulled—when you’re not in your right mind you tend not to brush—and she’d had the final one, a front tooth, pulled that day. The other teeth have been in back so aren’t that noticeable. She will be getting a partial—Medicaid covers this if you’ve had 5 or more teeth pulled—and last I heard, she’d planned to wait on the front tooth until the partial had been approved. I called her back to ask what’s the deal?

I could tell by the way she answered the phone, Jerri was in her own black cloud. Her mouth was hurting and there was a man in the background which is never a good thing. Jerri has the absolute worst taste in men. If I had to describe her “type” it would be unemployed, homeless, substance abusing ex-cons.

In the course of the conversation, I reminded Jerri that she had a $35 bill from the Ophthalmologist due on November 2nd.

“I can’t pay it. I don’t have any money left.” She just got paid on Tuesday.

“How much did you get paid?”

“$200. Why?” She said this defiantly, like its none of my business. And it wouldn’t be except, if you’ve been following the blog you’ll remember how Dr. Bryant treated Jerri with respect and compassion, giving her free samples and discounting her costs by over half. Is there any wonder there’s such a lack of civility in the world today? Whenever someone like Dr. B does a good deed, she gets kicked in the teeth for it. You’ll also remember that Dr. B is MY Ophthalmologist too.

“And you’ve already spent it ALL?”

“I’m going to pay her just not by the 2nd. And I can’t pay her next pay day because I’ve got that big phone bill due. And I need the rest for groceries. But I’ll pay her by the end of the month.”

What had she spent the money on? She spent half of it at Walmart on things she wanted—a Netflix box, crochet supplies.

And the rest? She was saving for groceries. Catherina was taking her tomorrow.

“I TOLD YOU I would pay it. What do you WANT from me? I forgot about the bill. You only told me about it ONCE. This is what I do. I don’t pay stuff on time but I EVENTUALLY pay it.”

What a freakin’ lie. That’s why she doesn’t have cable or Verizon. She just stopped paying them.

At this point she stopped giving me the chance to talk. Every time I tried to say something, she talked over me, getting louder and louder, never taking a breath, drowning out anything I wanted to say, filling the airspace with twisted justifications and somehow making out like it was as much my fault as hers that the bill hadn’t been paid. And in the background is this guy yammering and I can’t understand the words but it sounds like he’s egging her on.

And I snapped. I started screaming back at her, talking over HER and now neither one of us was listening. When I hung up (and have you ever noticed how unsatisfying it is to end an angry call on an iPhone—I just wanted to slam down the receiver and there wasn’t one) my first thought was, God, I’ve become my mother.

My anger stemmed from at least three things, probably more, but these are the biggee’s: 1) diversity-training-inspired self-loathing. 2) hurt from being totally disrespected by Jerri’s incessant over-talking which, BTW, I also experienced from work colleagues this week and it makes me feel smaller than a pimple on a bug’s ass. Sorry. Anger brings out the profanity in me. 3) concern that Jerri’s late payment would cause friction between Dr. Bryant and me.

The way I blew up and started screaming is exactly like my mom. The way I thought, “I wish I’d never gotten Jerri an appointment with Dr. Bryant because now she’s going to embarrass me” is exactly like my mom. The way I put 2 and 2 together (bad temper, guy in the background, $100 unaccounted for) and came up with “using” is exactly like my mom.

Aaaacckkk!

I guess it goes without saying that we haven’t spoken since . . .


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?”

Absolutely.


Breaking the Stability Code

We dropped by Triangle Cycles this week so Jerri could check out the scooters and afterward, as we drove back to her apartment, she asked “Where’s my Nicotrol Inhaler?”

I was stunned. You see last week, Jerri left the inhaler in my car. She called later to verify it was there and told me not to bother bringing it back since she had another one at her apartment. She’d just get it from me next time. And here it was, Next Time, and she remembered. She actually remembered, without any prompting, something that I, myself, had forgotten. Her inhaler was still in my car. This might seem trivial to others, but Jerri’s inability to keep up with her things is a constant source of consternation. Stuff seemingly disappears and she has no idea where or how she lost it. She can’t remember where she put her keys or that dollar she was saving for laundry. And that’s not the half of it. She often leaves voice messages asking me to remember something she knows she won’t.

But now, she’s very present and in her right mind. The improved memory is just one indication. Last week she surfed the internet for the best scooter deals and put together a plan to save up money to buy one. Her brain is working better. But how the heck did that happen? Seriously. I wish I could break the code. You can’t replicate what you don’t understand. If we could only figure out what she is doing right, maybe she could stay stable and actually start living life. There is something in me that refuses to believe Jerri is broken for good.

She’s been stable for about 3 months. Looking back, that aligns with, you guessed it, the day Dr. F stopped prescribing the-drug-of-which-we-do-not-speak. Jerri was very upset at having her access cut off. “I can’t focus without it! I can’t do anything. I neeeeeeed it to think clearly.” So I suggested we go to GNC and look for a natural supplement to help her concentrate.

Honestly, I don’t think concentration is her problem. And I’m not a big believer in nutraceuticals. It just feels like snake oil, you know? But it’s not all hooey because my knees scream at me whenever I fail to take Glucosamine more than 2 days in a row. It’s hard not to believe screaming knees. Jerri, on the other hand, puts a lot of faith in pills. She believes there’s a magic combination that, if she could only find it, would make her completely normal again. Doesn’t matter if it’s street drugs, prescription, or nutraceutical. So, while I really didn’t expect to find something that would help her, I thought trying something would at least help her feel like all was not lost. And maybe postpone her looking for another doc who would prescribe that demon med.

The GNC clerk showed us various products recommended for people with ADHD. Memorall, for one, is supposed to improve memory and focus. Sitting on the same shelf, was Energy Enhancer, a GNC product to boost energy levels. While I contemplated Memorall, Jerri picked up EE and said, “This is what I really need. Something that will get me out of bed in the morning.” She has been taking it religiously ever since and while she’d swap it in a heartbeat for the-drug-of-which-we-do-not-speak, she always let’s me know when she’s low on EE to make sure she is never without it.

So could Energy Enhancer be responsible for her better brain function? Or perhaps just her faith in it? Belief is, afterall, a powerful thing. Or was the simple act of ridding her system of that demon med the catalyst?

Hmmm. It’s got me thinking. What if some brain disorders are a result of vitamin deficiencies? When I was studying epilepsy at work, I learned a lot about how the brain works. Potassium, sodium, calcium, and other minerals found in our food are essential to the proper operation of mechanisms that cause neurons to fire. If neurons don’t fire or fire repeatedly, it messes up the chemical balance in the brain. Which causes seizures, or depression, or other brain disorders. So it stands to reason that if you aren’t getting some nutrient vital to brain function, you could get a little nutty.

20120805-211426.jpgI’ve had personal experience with vitamin deficiencies and know how life altering they can be. As a kid, I had a terrible time staying awake. The problem was so bad, my kindergarten teacher told Mom they were not going to promote me to first grade. Since I couldn’t stay awake, I wasn’t mature enough to move up. My BFF Karen Kay’s mother took mine by the hand and said, “It isn’t maturity, it’s nutrition.” They began pumping me with chewable vitamin C tablets, orange juice, sardines, and peanut butter. I call it the special Kay diet. And it worked.

My vitamin deficiency made me sleep all the time. But Jerri had the opposite problem as a kid. She had a terrible time going to sleep. There’s a link between bipolar disorder and sleep. Lack of sleep triggers mania which then leads to sleep deprivation. Interesting, right? If increasing certain foods in my diet fixed my sleep issue, maybe it could also help with insomnia and prevent mania. So I googled Bipolar and Nutrition and found a great article at PsychCentral.com. It states:

Experts from the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation in Los Angeles report that people with bipolar disorder are more likely to have vitamin B deficiencies, anemia, omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies, and vitamin C deficiency. They believe that essential vitamin supplements, taken alongside lithium, “reduce depressive and manic symptoms of patients suffering from bipolar disorder.” However, many of these links, although biologically plausible, are still unconfirmed.

In recent years, several studies have investigated the importance of folic acid in bipolar disorder. Deficiency of folic acid (vitamin B9, known in the body as folate) can increase levels of homocysteine. Raised homocysteine has been strongly linked to depression and less strongly to bipolar disorder.

What’s REALLY interesting is how the vitamin deficiencies listed in the article line up with the nutrients in my special Kay diet. Peanut Butter contains niacin (B3), folate, and B6. Orange juice is high in C. Sardines are high in B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Think about it. As kids, Jerri and I had the same diet. If my pre-special Kay diet lacked these nutrients, then so did Jerri’s. Or perhaps, genetically, we’re wired to need more of these nutrients. (Our Mom has to take B-12 injections because her body doesn’t metabolize it properly and she gets fuzzy-headed and at times incoherent.) In me, the deficiency caused sleep disorder. Perhaps in Jerri, it causes mood disorder.

Energy Enhancer, BTW, is primarily composed of niacin (B3), L-Arginine, and grape seed extract. Jerri also added a B-complex vitamin.

So I’m wondering how Jerri would do on the special Kay diet. I think it’s time for a little experiment.


Taking a Minute (OK, Ten) to Refocus

Jerri once said, “You look at me and see a problem. I’m not a problem—I’m a person!” Ouch. Granted, she wasn’t well at the time and she was really, REALLY angry about me refusing to drop everything and wrap my life around her current crisis. Still. If I’m honest with myself (and most of the time I try to be, unless I’m hormonal, and then I tend to listen to that small but obnoxiously loud inner voice that hollers “You can’t handle the truth!”), she was right. My entire family has treated Jerri as a problem that needs fixing since she was about 14 years old.

But it’s not just Jerri. I have this uncanny ability to spot problems everywhere. It’s as if I’m viewing the entire world through a cracked lens. No matter where I look, there is stuff that needs to be fixed. My mind seems to hone in on that which is broken. I don’t know how I got to be this way, whether it’s innately who I am or a way of thinking learned from my parents. But I do know this. No one wants to hear about problems unless you’re offering solutions. And you need to make sure your conversations are sprinkled with positives or people will avoid you like a friendly raccoon in broad daylight. (Rabies for you city peeps scratching your heads.)

My boss recently reminded me of this. Not about raccoons (although that does sound like a conversation we might have) but about refocusing on the positives.

I’m currently working on the-project-from-hell (literally, that’s what I named the folder where all my project docs get filed) which appears to be totally jinxed, I mean, if anything can go wrong on this project, it will and it has. It’s as if the whole universe is conspiring against me. I’ve known for quite some time my life is harder than everybody else’s :-). But, really? I’ve brought issue after issue, challenge after challenge to my boss’s attention so he reminded me during my semi-annual professional development discussion that what I’m working on is, in fact, STILL an awesome project. It is STILL very worthwhile and something we should be doing as a company. We have made a tremendous amount of progress and it’s important to remember and to celebrate what we’ve accomplished. And we need to make sure upper management hears about the good stuff and not just about what sucks.

The same is true with Jerri. Not that she’s a “project” but like all of us, she is a work in progress. We have both come a long way since she moved here in 2010. It’s been hard. It’s been challenging. It’s been bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustrating. There have been times I thought I’d hyperventilate. Or get in my car, keep on driving, and never look back. But in a weird almost twisted way, its also been rewarding. Like Glinda (Wicked), who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But I have grown. And I have been changed for good. (Don’t hate me for identifying with Glinda here—remember, Elphaba turns out to be the hero.)

(Elphaba):
I’m limited. Just look at me – I’m limited
And just look at you. You can do all I couldn’t do, Glinda
So now it’s up to you. For both of us – now it’s up to you…

(Glinda):
I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those who help us most to grow If we let them
And we help them in return.
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today because I knew you…

20120714-143822.jpgI completely understand why many siblings, maybe even most siblings, want nothing to do with brothers and sisters with brain disorders, particularly those who are dual diagnosis. It’s like marriage and growing old. It isn’t for wimps. However, for those of us who have chosen to engage, what we gain personally and spiritually is priceless. All of us who care for people with brain disorders need to refocus every now and then and celebrate even the small stuff.

In the spirit of that, Jerri, Stan, and I are off to see Brave (Groupon) and then dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s. Here’s what I’m celebrating today:

  • Jerri’s been consistently stable for about 2 months.
  • I’ve managed to vanquish the evil Adderall Rx at least for now.
  • She has more energy, is keeping her apartment clean, and doing her laundry.
  • She has a renewed interest in making her place “homey” and used her own money to buy a new comforter set and shower curtain. She also rescued a rug from the dumpster (ew!) but it does look nice.
  • She’s making some tough, responsible decisions. She worked with her telecom provider on a plan to catch up on payments and she’s faithfully made the last 3 installments. She has told a friend who has been crashing regularly at her apartment and who has been asked by property management to stay off the premises that he can no longer stay with her.
  • She is starting to care about her appearance and health again. She’s talking about making appointments to see both a dentist and an ophthalmologist.
  • She’s had some substance abuse relapses but she tells me now when she uses instead of making up some outrageous story about the magical disappearance of appliances—stuff that’s only truly believable if you happen to live at Hogwarts. She has told the source not to come around any more and identified some local Narcotics Anonymous meetings within walking distance.
  • She’s thinking about others more. On our last grocery day, she brought a list of items to pick up for Bronwyn, a friend in her building who’s struggling with depression. She’s also clipping coupons for restaurants to help subsidize our outings.
  • I’m having some success with boundaries. Just yesterday, when Jerri called asking for a $3.00 loan, I reminded her of my policy on that—she needs to manage her money in such a way that she has at least $5.00 left at the end of each pay period to cover unplanned needs. So I said no and told her she was really pushing my boundaries. She agreed, and, can you believe it, LET IT GO. Just like that.
  • Jerri is starting to dream again and to set goals. When we finally sell her car, she plans to buy a scooter with the money. This is a GREAT solution to her mobility issues. It doesn’t require a license and hers has been suspended indefinitely since she can’t afford to pay the fines. It also keeps her off the highways which, trust me, is just better for everyone all the way around. Gas for a scooter is also way more affordable than for a car. Her other dream is to move to the beach and she talks about setting money aside on a regular basis as soon as she’s paid off some debts.
  • Oh, and probably the best thing—Jerri’s youngest daughter, “A”, called her. This is incredible, really. They’ve had practically no contact for years. “A” lives with our parents and like everyone else in that household, does not understand mental illness and the link to addiction. She lived with Jerri until she was around 8 years old, I believe. There is a LOT of baggage. “A” is applying for financial aid for college and needs Jerri’s signature on some forms. She called me first, soliciting my help, and I encouraged her to talk to Jerri. And she did!
  • A great theologian :-), Albus Dumbledore, once said:

    Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.

    Hope you all join me in turning on the light, whatever the circumstances in which you find yourself today.