Book Review: Reversible Skirt

Reversible Skirt, by Laura McHale Holland, is a heart-breaking memoir about one young mother’s suicide as seen through the eyes of her youngest child, Laura. A toddler at the time of the tragedy, Laura is initially bewildered by the changes swirling around her family, including the appearance of a new stepmother, who is simply passed off as the same person to the children.

The author has done a masterful job of capturing the thought process of a young child as she struggles to make sense of the changes in her world. The tragic events of the girls’ lives aren’t over, unfortunately. The abuse they experience as they grow and confront of the truth of their mother’s death and their father’s choices can be painful to read. Yet it’s worth persevering, because the book ends with Laura and her sisters finding strength and peace in adulthood.

Reversible Skirt describes a time in our not-too-distant past where mental illness and suicide were swept under the rug. While we have made some gains as a society, the situation will feel familiar to those of us who have lived through mental illness in our own families. What was most intriguing about the book was how the author and her sisters forgave their abusive stepmother after everything she did to them as children. Their ability to survive and recover from their challenging childhoods is uplifting. The capacity they show for forgiveness is truly inspiration.

Surviving Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is one of those quietly ubiquitous mental illnesses. Most women don’t discuss it, yet all the mothers I know feel that they went through it in some form. Here’s an interesting blog about postpartum anxiety, which isn’t discussed nearly as much as postpartum depression.

But I also wanted to highlight this post, because it also reminds us how beautiful and important recovery is: 70 Postpartum Depression Survivors: I Knew I Was Getting Better When …

Thoughts on Our Culture’s Treatment of Suicide and Mental Illness

Sometimes other people say it best. Today, a local politician talks candidly about his experience at a memorial service for a young man who committed suicide. Definitely worth a read. Here’s a small snapshot:

We are still a long way from a fool-proof medical treatment for depression, but we are even farther away from having the social and cultural understanding necessary to maximize the effectiveness of the treatments we have. For all the breakthroughs we’ve made in the field of mental health, too many of us still tend to believe that if a problem is in your head, it isn’t real.

Yet even the best treatment sometimes fails, and you wind up in a room filled with people each remembering the phone call they meant to make, the e-mail they were going to answer or the invitation they kept planning to extend. It’s unrealistic to believe any of that would have changed the outcome, but it is human to think so and may even spur us to be more thoughtful and attentive to others, at least for a time, and that’s something.

But when those left behind assume too great a burden of guilt, it compounds the suffering and distorts the reality of this terrible illness. By thinking we could have somehow deflected the fatal act, we are granting it a degree of consciousness and deliberation at variance with reality and empowering it with the further capacity to unfairly continue inflicting pain and injury on others. After all, no one blames the empty chambers in a pistol for not coming up in a fatal game of Russian Roulette.

Click here for the full story.

Hoarders, The Television Show. Helpful or Hurtful?

Okay, well, I’m not exactly up on the latest in popular culture. So while Hoarders is nothing new to many of you out there,  it was new to me. I caught a couple of episodes this week for the first time almost by accident while I was working on the computer with the TV on in the background.

The next thing I knew, nearly two hours had passed. Another Hoarders episode was coming on, and I WANTED TO WATCH. It took real strength to turn off the TV and go to bed, which is what I really needed to do.

My first instinct, honestly, was repulsion. Not at the people depicted on TV or their situation, but repulsion that someone out there thought this would be entertaining. And, to be truthful, repulsion at the level of my own interest in the show.

Full Disclosure: I’m not a reality TV watcher. I’ve always thought reality TV simply elevates the old circus freak show to a broader audience. I know people love it  — from Survivor to Jon & Kate to the Bachelor. Eh. Just not for me.

I know hoarders, and I had one in my family. I had a very difficult time letting go of my mother’s belongings after she died, and I can empathize with those people who react with anger and frustration when people start throwing their things out, no matter how much they resemble trash. I was frustrated and saddened that these people and their mental illnesses would be subjected to this level of public humiliation. I was annoyed that the deeper issues behind hoarding weren’t really explored, and I felt like the hard parts were being swept under the rug. Where was the slow, probably agonizing therapy that I knew must occur for these people to actually get help and get better?

And then, I found this lovely site called the Children of Hoarders. And I watched the video of that lovely man, Jason, telling his story about living with a mother who was a hoarder. And I wanted to cry and scream and hug him at the same time. And I realized that, while I still think the show is simplifying a very complicated problem, it is doing something that I admire. It’s bringing attention to mental illness. It’s giving people hope. It’s telling them they are not alone. It’s telling them they can find help. It is supporting the families of the mentally ill — people who need far more support than they typically receive.

So maybe, just maybe, a television show can help hoarders move past the stigma of their illnesses and take the steps to rebuild their lives. I still haven’t made up my mind about the show. Watch this space as I continue to struggle with the clash of mass media and the depiction of mental illness.

Murder-Suicide: Rare, Sad and Difficult to Predict

My community recently experienced a murder-suicide where a father took the lives of his two young daughters. I did not know the family, although acquaintances of mine did. One of the girls is the same age as my son. This, unfortunately, enables my over-active imagination to picture his face as a victim of a similar crime. I feel deep empathy for the girls’  mother, whose life was immeasurably changed just a few days ago. It makes me feel like someone punched me in the stomach, and I can only imagine how she must feel.

I’ve also been trying to imagine what the father must have been feeling and thinking before he committed this act. This is far more difficult. According to sketchy media reports, he was despondent over a pending divorce and suffered from depression. But millions of people get divorced and millions of people are depressed. And yes, millions are suicidal. There must be something more — something that pushes someone over the edge to commit murder of the people they love before they take their own life.

I was reminded that as a teenager with a bipolar mother, a therapist once told me that someone who is suicidal can also be homicidal. I didn’t fully understand this information at the time, although now I realize that she was warning me that someone who was contemplating suicide may consider it an act of mercy to take family members with them to prevent their suffering. In other words, she was trying to tell me to be careful.

At the time, I thought the idea was ridiculous. But then, I also couldn’t have imagined back then that my mother would eventually succeed at taking her own life. The unthinkable does happen. I’ve always thought that one of my mother’s twisted thoughts prior to her suicide was that she felt we would be better off without her. She couldn’t have been more wrong. I can only guess that the perpetrator of a murder-suicide commits murder as a perverted sense of altruism.

I’ve looked up research on the Internet, but studies on murder-suicide are far and few between. Murder-suicides are rare, thankfully, and the circumstances do vary. The researchers agree on some basic points — the perpetrators are typically men and involve firearms. A history of mental illness, particularly depression is common, as is domestic violence and economic uncertainty.

But none of the studies I’ve seen have helped with understanding why it happens and how to help others who are in danger. Like other forms of mental illness, what causes someone to commit murder-suicide is mostly unknown and therefore difficult to predict.

I hope we can find a way to help. Because the unthinkable does happen.

Mental Illness and the Gulf Oil Spill

We live far from the Gulf of Mexico, yet we’ve visited and spent a great deal of time in that area. Watching the news makes the tragedy of the BP oil spill feel close to home. While we want to know, we need to know, what is happening and why, the constant news coverage also leaves us with a feeling of hopelessness — what can we do, being so far away? How can we help? How can we prevent such tragedies? What lessons should we as a nation learn? Important questions without easy answers. And they leave us with a general feeling of malaise that we have started calling the August Angst. (Although we suspect it is not limited to the month of August, and it may evolve into a September Snit.) 

So naturally we found it interesting, but not surprising, that the mental health of people living in communities along the coast is affected. This story by Medical News Today outlines some of the findings of a study by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Among not-so-surprising results: Over one-third of parents report that their children have experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.

If we, who live at least a thousand miles away, are feeling mental health distress, it only makes sense that those who are so close (and whose livelihood may depend on the Gulf) are affected. We’re glad someone is studying this issue, and we’d like to send good thoughts out to you Gulf Coastal residents. Let us know how we can help.

Coping with the Holiday Blues

The holidays are upon us. I was pleased to find in my research that the rumors of increased suicide attempts during the holiday period has been proven inaccurate. In fact, the opposite seems to be true — with more people reporting improvements in mental health, possibly because we typically interact more with other people during this season than during the rest of the year.

But what if, due to no fault of your own, the holidays reflect more about what you’ve lost than what you have?

That was my feeling about the holiday season for many, many years. Memories of happier times did not comfort me. I went through the motions, but felt like Christmas — the major holiday of my childhood — was simply another day where the thing I wanted most (my mother) was missing.

Not only was the thing I wanted unobtainable, but gifts in general felt like a poor substitute. Carols? Cookies? Reindeer? Nah. Didn’t do a thing for me. I was looking for something that could not be found in a store or under a tree or even in a church.  Like the first part of the song, “Where Are You Christmas?”, I had changed, but the holidays were a chain to my past.

This is my 21st Christmas without my mother. That’s a lot of crappy holidays. Too many. But I’m please to report some improvements over the past few years. The major reason is the birth of my own children, who are enchanted by the magical side of Christmas. They believe in Santa, and I love watching their excitement. It has brought a new joy into the season. Hang around with young children during the holidays. It’s much more fun.

I’ve also focused less on myself and more on others.  Giving to others is one relatively simple way to find the spirit of the holidays when it feels like it’s missing. I make donations during this time of year. They are small, but I make sure they count. I give to people and charities doing work I believe in. I donate time to organizations that make a difference. In helping others, I help myself reconnect with what is truly important in our lives. And in this economy, the need is greater than ever.

I also have given myself permission to give up parts of Christmas that feel more burdersome than celebretory. I made three batches of simple cookies instead of 10 batches of those tasty, but very complicated, recipes handed down by my grandmothers. Our dinner is also simplified — only the dishes we truly enjoy will find it to our table this year. No homemade gifts from me either — great idea, but I don’t enjoy crafting enough to make that my priority. I still do Christmas cards because I enjoy receiving them, but the letter inside is printed from a computer instead of handwritten (my preference).

Another idea that I like is simply skipping the holidays. Leave the decorations in the attic, find someone to pick up your mail, get a cheap flight and hotel on the Internet, and then take off for someplace tropical. If the holidays are painful, I think doing something radically different is an okay way to cope with the situation. I confess that I have not put this option into action, but I reserve the right to in future years.

My own experience has led me to believe that time does help.  Those 20 years of cruddy Christmases are not a life-long sentence. Each year is gets a little easier as I find ways to make the holiday season reflect what I feel is important. It’s a journey, not a destination.