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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Brain Training, Ruzzle, and CET

20130511-112031.jpgThe 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.

user:Looie496 created file, US National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging created original / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

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.


Caramore, Part 2

Those of you following the blog may recall Jerri’s interview at Caramore Community back in October –the one cut short when she confessed she’d smoked crack the day before. Yep. Not one of her more stellar moments. If you’re new to the blog, you can catch up here.

I’m sort of crushing on Caramore. I know, I know. It can’t possibly be ALL THAT but what I’ve read and observed is truly impressive. Caramore is a structured, residential support program for adults with mental illness that uses a step-up approach to empower independence and community employment. Not sure why this is such a novel approach–but trust me, it is– no one else seems to be doing it. Caramore puts brain disorders in their place; chronic conditions to be managed as you get on with the business of living your life.

At first, participants establish a daily work regimen, 30 hours a week, as employees on Caramore’s janitorial or landscaping work crews which provide services to the community. The janitorial crew, for example, cleans churches, businesses, and homes. Participants live in Caramore apartments where Residential Advisors supervise and help them establish personal goals like sticking to a budget or improving social skills. There are 4 participants to an apartment. Everyone has his/her own bedroom, shares a bath with one other person, and shares the kitchen and den with all housemates. Chores are assigned and everyone contributes to maintaining the living space.

Participants earn minimum wage which is applied to their housing. Disability income goes into a savings account which after several months is enough for a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment outside the program.

As you progress in the program, there’s gradual lessening of supervision and Caramore helps you secure employment in the community at sponsoring businesses. A HUGE shout out to Lowes, Target, Whole Foods, and UNC for being Caramore employers.

After 3 or more months of steady employment, participants move into community apartments. Many split the cost with housemates they met at Caramore. Slowly, Caramore’s services are reduced and eventually phased out. Eventually, participants “graduate” but can continue to network and get support from other alumnae.

Did I mention Caramore has a 90% success rate?

At first glance, it might appear Jerri doesn’t need this kind of program. After all, she’s already able to live fairly independently. She takes her medicine on her own, does her own shopping, pays bills, and has her own apartment. Still Caramore has a lot to offer. Jerri’s not great with money and spends it all within days of getting payed. Probably as a technique to remain clean (if she doesn’t have any money, she can’t buy drugs) and perhaps as a post-traumatic stress response (if she doesn’t have any money, no one can steal from her.) Caramore could help her work through money issues. Jerri is also ready to get a job but fears losing disability and the possibly of getting sick again. Caramore has experts in disability law and can help navigate this. On her own, she lacks the discipline to get up every morning and go to work. Plus she has a felony on her record and that makes it difficult to even find employment. Lastly, her social skills aren’t great. These are all challenges, Caramore can help address.

After the botched interview back in October, Jacob, the Admissions Director, said typically new admissions have to be clean and sober for 6 months prior, however, he would cut that to 3 months for Jerri and scheduled another interview for January 8th. Jacob has since had a promotion and on the 8th, Jerri met with Blake, the new director. The interview went well – no drama this time – and Blake scheduled a trial visit for Jerri to test drive the program.

That was this past week. Trial visits are supposed to be 5 days but with Martin Luther King day on Monday and the ice storm on Friday, Jerri’s visit lasted only 3. She worked on the janitorial crew mostly vacuuming and complained of backaches daily. She described the other participants as “heavily medicated” and likened the experience to “being in a mental hospital” because Caramore dispenses all medications and you have to take them while they watch. When I pressed for one positive thing about the experience, she said “everyone is really nice to me.” She also felt better about the visit after talking to her Residential Advisor for the week.

Yesterday morning, we sat down with Blake and discussed the visit. He said the 3 days really hadn’t been enough time for Caramore or for Jerri to fully assess whether the program was a good fit. Jerri is concerned she might not be physically able to vacuum for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. (Ha! Who among us is?) So Blake asked her to do another trial visit, for a full week, starting Monday.

For my part, I’m trying my best to remain objective. To me, Caramore seems like a life-saver. On the other hand, what could possibly be worse than ending the relationship with Telecare (her current mental health provider), letting her apartment go (for which there was a waiting list to get in), and moving all her stuff to Caramore only to receive a call 2 weeks later saying it’s not going to work out? Jerri has said as much. “I want to be sure I can physically do the work before I commit.” She was seriously doubting herself when I picked her up yesterday.

“What will you do, Jerri, if you decide you can’t manage the Caramore program? Just go back to watching TV all day?”

“No. Catherina will take me to Vocational Rehabilitation and I’ll try to get back into work that way.”

She’s got good intentions – I’m just concerned about follow-through. And likelihood of success without more structured support than what Telecare can provide. I know, it’s out of my hands. God, grant me the serenity . . .


You Can’t Judge a Girl By Her Panties (or Lack There Of)

Consider this an object lesson and the object is—wait for it—panties. That’s right. I’m going to present you with several panty photos and get your impression of the woman who might wear them. We’ll see how close you come to the actual truth about the wearer. I know, this is a little odd, even for me, but there is a point and I promise to keep things PG-rated. So let’s begin.

20121111-113734.jpgHere’s the first pair. What do you think?

A little skimpy, right? Cute little snowflake but given the G-string, is cute what this wearer is really going for? She’s likely twenty-something, maybe playing the field, or maybe in a relationship where she wants to be prepared for anything. She’s comfortable with her body. She’s playful, sexy but wants to communicate a touch of innocence.

Interesting but . . . WRONG. So a little tricky because there is NO wearer as these have never been worn. As for the intended wearer, well, that would be me, and yes, I’ll pause for a minute while you get back up off the floor, gain control of yourself, and stop laughing. There. Feel better?

So the story here is I used to buy bra’s at Victoria’s Secret and I joined their Angel Rewards program. As an Angel, I was entitled to a free panty every month. A deal right? Weellllllll, if you’re 15 maybe. Turns out the free ones aren’t designed for those of us who like a little more coverage.

Also, turns out the free panty is just a marketing ploy to entice you to visit the store. Yeah, I should have seen that coming. So I wised up and exercised my right to just say no. My husband, on the other hand, not so much. “But its FREE,” he kept telling me and when I refused to budge, he made the trip to Victoria’s —on my behalf—or so he said, not that I doubt him. Okay, maybe a little. Anyhoo, this was the last pair he brought home and while I’m flattered that he thinks these would look good on me, let’s get real. Hahahahahahaha. NEVER g-o-i-n-g t-o h-a-p-p-e-n.

20121111-114240.jpgOkay, second pair. Thoughts on these?

Hmmm. Practical, cotton hipsters. Not sexy but then not exactly granny panties either. Pastel color. Could be for a little girl but wait. Is that a vanishing edge I see? Ah. These belong to a working woman, a no non-sense gal – a sales person or a school teacher – someone who doesn’t need the distraction of panty lines. Not likely a very attractive woman. Probably not sexually active. Or if she is, she and her partner are REALLY comfortable together because she doesn’t feel the need to impress with te-niny triangles of satin and lace.

Better, but still WRONG. Again, these are mine—see the pattern forming? And yes, these are my goto everyday panty. And while it’s true, I AM a working woman, I buy the Soma vanishing edge brand more as a, eh-hem, health conscious consumer. They’re Oz-approved, you know. That’s Dr. Oz, THE leading expert on all things health (and don’t tell me you don’t DVR him) and according to his extremely important episode, uh, scientific research, on cellulite prevention, these panties are the way to go. True to the name, they virtually eliminate panty lines, so you were right about that, and there’s no elastic in the legs allowing better blood flow and less fat cell accumulation. So don’t judge me. “Not a very attractive woman,” humph. Let’s be a little more considerate on this next pair, shall we?

20121111-114418.jpgUh, right. Spanx. Obviously for a woman who’s a half-size larger than some of her clothes. NOT comfortable with her body. Maybe has a muffin-top she needs to camouflage. Could be any age really but likely younger since she still cares how she looks. Probably single because, again, still cares how she looks.

My, you ARE cynical today. Might I suggest a second cup of Joe? As for this pair, your guess is as good as mine. Never seen them before in my life. Really. Have absolutely no idea about the kind of woman who would wear these. If I had to guess, mind you I really don’t know anything about them, but if I had to, I’d say these were worn by a fashion-forward lady with a special dress for a special occasion like maybe her 40th birthday or perhaps, 25th wedding anniversary? But then I’d only be guessing . . .

20121111-114512.jpgAnd now for the last photo. That’s right, there are NO panties here. What kind of woman wears no panties at all? My mother would say a slut, a hooker, a prostitute, a “ho” (although I believe the politically correct term might be “pleasure technician”). A woman with no morals. A party girl, a stripper, a playboy bunny. Need I go on?

But wait. Let’s think this one through. What about a homeless woman? She’s living on the street with only the clothes on her back and let’s face it, panties wear out. Do shelters provide underwear in their clothes closets? Many do not. What about a lady at a battered women’s shelter who fled for her life and left all her belongings behind? What about a single mom at the rescue mission who’s trying to get back on her feet? What about the skads of low-income females who do their clothes shopping at Goodwill and Salvation Army stores? When was the last time you donated undergarments to these stores?

Never. And that’s the point. No one does.

So why am I posting photos of my panties online? I want to start a panty raid.

I had an ah-ha moment two years ago as I was packing my sister’s clothes for her move to Durham. I was surprised to find she didn’t own a single pair of panties. When I asked why, she said, “You can’t buy them at thrift stores and I’d rather spend my money on groceries.” So now, every Christmas, one of the gifts she gets from me is panties and bra’s.

And, as we’re now steadily approaching the holidays, I’d like to enlist your help. Won’t you join me by raiding your local department store this month and donating NEW bra’s and panties to your local shelter, rescue mission, GoodWill or Salvation Army? You don’t have to purchase at Victoria’s Secret, or Soma, or Spanx. Target and Walmart have perfectly good underwear at reasonable prices. Consider this a special Christmas project. Or a non-random act of kindness. Or a tangible means of linking arms with your sisters nationwide. And don’t forget, your sisters come in all sizes 😉


Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires (or Caramore Part 1)

The office for Caramore Community was not what I expected. Think non-profit, low budget, scuffed up, battered furnishings, cracked and sterile floor, walls badly in need of paint. Instead, the office appeared interior-decorated. There were two large seating areas with comfy chairs surrounding over-sized square coffee tables. The walls were painted a warm caramel with matching plush carpet. Magazines and plants were scattered about. The receptionist desk was a long white affair that stretched across the length of the room. We were greeted promptly by Samantha who quickly found Jerri’s appointment and brought her coffee.

After a short wait, Jacob, the admissions director, greeted us and escorted us back to his office. He stepped out to get a copy of Jerri’s application giving us a chance to check out his digs. On the wall behind his desk was a portrait of someone who might have been Andrew Jackson. It was hung upside down. To the right was a credenza stacked about a foot high with piles of paper. Above this hung 8 to 10 apple green paper plates as if they were china. Above these, a bathroom scale had been hung and it took me a minute to realize it wasn’t a clock. On the opposite wall, a tree branch reached into the room, it’s base framed with an ornate white frame. Interesting!

Jacob, himself, was soft-spoken but exuded a sense of purpose and authority. He began the interview by saying this was an opportunity for us to learn about Caramore and for him to learn about Jerri. They are very protective about their community. They have limited space and receive hundreds of applications a year. They only have space for 30 individuals in their residential program and there is a 4 to 6 month wait-list. They only accept individuals who are not a threat to the community – you must be stable on medications, no history of violence, clean/sober for 6 months, ready and willing to work. He told Jerri that he would request records from Telecare and it was important that what she shared with him aligned with Telecare’s records. It was important for her to be completely honest with him because dishonesty was a warning flag and would raise concerns about allowing her into the program.

He asked if she wanted me present during the interview or if she would be more comfortable if I waited outside.

“My sister can stay. She knows everything about me so there’s no reason for her not to,” Jerri replied.

He asked about her diagnosis and how she was first diagnosed. Listening to Jerri tell her story was hard – it brought back a lot of difficult memories and all the emotions I’d felt at the time washed over me again. I don’t remember some things exactly the same way Jerri does, but I have a lot of gaps in my memory – things I imagine I’ve blocked because they are just too painful. Jerri talked about repeatedly running away and our parents checking her into Mandala, a private hospital, when she was 15. One of Mom’s friends had a daughter, Connie, who had “acted out” like Jerri and Mandala had helped her. Mandala diagnosed Jerri as having mental illness – the actual diagnosis is unclear – but my parents never accepted the diagnosis. She did not get medication or counseling.

After that she started using drugs and skipping classes with a 38 year old woman who hung out at the high school, buying drugs and alcohol for the kids, and taking them home. Debbie sexually molested Jerri – at the time Jerri thought herself in a relationship with Debbie. She believed she was discovering her true sexual orientation was lesbian. But as an adult, Jerri recognizes Debbie was a predator. Jerri was so desperate for attention and affection, she was willing to go along with Debbie in order to feel loved.

Jacob then delved more into the substance abuse. “When was the last time you used?”

“Four months ago,” she said and explained the situation.

“If that is true, and I have no reason not to believe you, then you don’t mind doing a drug test today, right?”

Silence. Jerri looked at Jacob and said nothing for what seemed like eternity. Her hesitation was a dead give-away. Finally she spoke. “You’ll find crack in my system. I smoked it yesterday.”

Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! I could just strangle her. Why would she do something so STUPID? She knew Caramore required 6 months of sobriety to get in. She read it on the website and even talked to me about it beforehand. Did she really not want in the program? Was this some twisted passive-aggressive way to get them not to accept her? Was she purposely sabotaging herself?

Jacob closed his folder and said, “I’m going to end the interview now. If I continue the interview it’s not going to go well with you and could prevent you from ever getting into our program. I’m going to reschedule the interview for 3 months and you will need to provide evidence of 3 months sobriety in order for the interview to occur. It concerns me greatly that when I asked when you last used you said 4 months ago which was not the truth. The truth is you used yesterday. Maybe you lied because you want into the program so badly. But if that is the case, the way in is through sobriety. This development delays when you could be considered for the program. If you are serious about changing your life, I’ll see you again in January. There are some people I’ve worked with for years to get them ready for the program. This is not a ‘no’. It’s a ‘you are not ready.'”

I could learn a lot from this man.

He refused to accept any of Jerri’s excuses. She said, “I don’t crave drugs any more. I wouldn’t use if people weren’t knocking on my door offering it to me for free.”

Jacob’s response: “No one held you down, forced the pipe in your mouth and made you inhale. Even when they bring it to your door, you have to take responsibility and say no. Even in Carrboro, crack is available. It will always be accessible no matter where you live. You can’t use that as an excuse. You are lying to yourself when you say ‘I wouldn’t use if I lived somewhere else.'”

As you might imagine, the drive home was a bit strained. Jerri couldn’t explain why she’d done it. I could feel myself disassociating.

“Here’s the thing, Jerri,” I said. “If you really aren’t interested in Caramore, you should have just said so. I took half a day off from work for this interview, and believe me, come January, I will not do it again if you use at all between now and then. What you did was inconsiderate of everyone – you, Jacob, and me.”

“I knew I’d made a big mistake the minute I did it. I don’t know why I did it. I was just so surprised when he handed me the pipe. I didn’t know how to respond so I just took it.”

“Jerri, the way your life is now is the way it will always be unless you choose to change it. That is if you’re lucky because right now you are dependent on the government and they could pull funding at any moment making your life even more challenging. You need to be dependent on you. You need to make a choice – do you want simply to exist? Or do you want to live? No one can make that choice for you. Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

20121013-095105.jpg

That’s right. Everything I ever needed to know about personal accountability, I learned from Smokey the Bear.

Many of the bad things that happen in our lives are a direct consequence of choices we make. I’m not saying that we are responsible for EVERY bad thing that happens. Bad things happen all the time to good people out of no fault of their own. Last time I checked, 100% of us can expect to experience something devastating in our lifetime. The untimely death of a loved one. Debilitating illness. Estrangement. Divorce. Bankruptcy. Down-sizing. A crime against us. Abuse. We live in a broken world and no matter how good we are, how religious, how smart or careful or risk-adverse, there is no magic formula. Bad things happen, period.

But some bad things are avoidable. If I make my car payment, my car will not be repossessed, for example. I won’t lose my job because I don’t have transportation to get there. Smokey teaches me that if I don’t light a match and throw it into the woods, I won’t start a fire that may eventually consume me.

“If God wants me to get into Caramore then He will make it happen,” Jerri said.

Really? Because I don’t think so. God forgives but I can’t think of a single time that he supernaturally revoked the consequences of someone’s bad choices. He’s not going to, for example, plant the notion in Jacob’s head to rescind the sobriety requirement just for Jerri.

So the visit to Caramore did not go as planned. Jerri continues to talk about the program as something she wants to do. We’ll just have to see how the next three months unfold.


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.


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.

“What?”

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.