Category: mental health

Challenges and Gifts

My father will turn 90 in just a few days.  Family is gathering for the party tomorrow.  I’ll be 500 miles away.

That wasn’t the plan.  The plan was that I’d drive home yesterday, spend a little time with friends along the way, then head for a weekend with family.  My body, well actually my brain, changed the plan.  I have epilepsy.  I was diagnosed in 2013.  My seizures have been well under control, but one showed up a few days ago and I had to set down the car keys for the next few months.  And, I had to take a few days to just rest and recover.

The good news is that it encouraged me to pick up the laptop again.

I don’t know why I have epilepsy.  I come from a large family and I am the only one with this challenge/gift.  I can hypothesize a list of possibilities, and I have many times. But, the reality is that it’s here and I get to live with it.

Why write about it?  Well, because it is a gift and gifts are good to share.  What? Epilepsy is a gift? No way!

I will admit it’s not a gift I would have chosen and if I had the receipt I would most definitely return it, but it is a gift.  Here are just few reasons why I consider my epilepsy a gift in my life.  I wonder what unexpected and perhaps unwanted gifts life has given you?

  1. It’s helped me look at the temporary nature of life to better understand that there was a time without me and there will be another time without me.  That’s ok. Now is my time to be alive.
  2. It got me to take pause to take care of myself.  I’m now a whole lot more conscious of when I need to just relax.  I’ve totally changed my diet, lost a lot of weight, and feel much better and happier.
  3. It’s helped me empathize with the experience of others.  Seizures scare people.  They also sometimes limit some of the things that I am able to do.  Epilepsy is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  So, I am told, by the law, that I now have a disability.  Some days I agree.  Some days I don’t.  But, I do know that I have a better understanding of how both my brain and societal rules create limits.
  4. I have found great support.  I am a lucky one.  I have a strong family and friends that don’t run when they get scared.  I’ve also been able to find some excellent online support groups that have added to the group of people that I have that understand.  How amazing is it when people stay with us through the our rough spots?
  5. It’s continued to inspire my work to encourage healthy living both as individuals and as community.  My experience simply reminds me that we need to take care of ourselves individually and as a community if we’re to survive and thrive.

What challenge/gifts inspire you and carry you forward?

The Community Table

August 29th, 2013

I get to work often with groups who want to bring others to the table, wherever that table might be and whatever the people around that table might be doing. Usually the folks they want at the table are different from them in some notable way. They’re often younger. Maybe they have a smaller income. Many times the people with the table have pale skin and the people they’d like at the table have some shade of brown skin.

Increasingly, I’m challenged by that idea of bringing people to the table. I see a couple problems with it. First, it presumes that the people being invited don’t already have their own table that is just as good that you’ve just never seen. Secondly, it keeps the host in the host role. There’s no marriage of equals here. One person/group owns the table. The other is a guest.

We live in a world filled with unhealthy power dynamics around class, race and ethnicity, age, gender, and the list goes on. If we want our organizations and our organizing to not be a reflection of the sickness of the world, we have to do something different.

Step away from the table. Meet the people that you want to work with on shared turf. What are your shared needs and concerns? Know that you may be turned away for a myriad of reasons. Some of those reasons will have to do with your personal actions and some with all the stories of histories of oppression. Show respect. Show a willingness to learn. Show a willingness to fall and get back up again. Know that it will take a long time, maybe forever to build a trust.

Get a new table, one that isn’t yours or theirs, but instead that you fashioned together out of shared dreams. Know that this table will look different than your old one. Maybe it will be stronger and maybe it will be a little off balance. Who knows? It will be larger and have many carvings of great stories hard and beautiful.

How do you step away from your table? Here’s just a couple quick pointers that I’ve found helpful over the years:
1. Diversity of whatever sort isn’t a side issue. It is THE ISSUE. Being welcoming, supportive, and representative of all people that you want to be together at the table has to be central to everything you do.
2. Look at whatever you are working on from many angles. Why might others care about this same thing? Why do you care about it? What do you share with others?
3. Keep looking at yourself and your own actions. We are all products of history. We all need to hold ourselves accountable to act in ways the future can be proud of
4. We are all learners, teachers, and leaders. Allow yourself to be each of these with everyone.
5. Be there. When you are called to be supportive to those you want to work with and who are struggling in whatever way do so in whatever way you are able.

That’s a short clip, no where near the whole story. But, maybe there’s something there to consider. Mull it over and share. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Keeping it Cool

July 26th, 2013

I spent my noon hour today as I have often lately. I spent it singing with my friends. Today was a little different though, a return for me after spending most of the week away. The numbers of people in the Wisconsin capitol each noon hour are continuing to grow again. Hundreds of people filled the building again singing and standing in support of the singers and the people’s right to the capitol as a public forum.

Up north my friends are starting to get threats for their work against the proposed mine. Unsigned messages left out in the woods threatening the women with rape and all with death.

I keep hearing messages of sadness and the fascist state that Wisconsin has become. That makes me sad on some level. On a deeper level though I feel the strength growing. I see the people gathering. I’ve been organizing for over two decades and I’ve never seen the people claiming the space like they are today.

There is fear. There is anger. There are heartless beings who have lost their connection to this place and think that the land is something dead for their consumption. They will strike out.

One man at the capitol today was taken to the hospital in an ambulance after his arrest. He was struck by his own body. His heart failed him. It was not an action of billy clubs or tasers. Maybe the police were negligent in their care for him. I don’t know. The violence that injured the pastor today was that of his own body. Tomorrow that may not be true. Tomorrow’s violence may be external. It may be the police or perhaps those heartless beings who have forgotten our connections to each other and this place and think only in dollar signs.

We must be prepared.

I ask all those out there who call themselves activists or organizers or just people who care take the moment. Pause. Do what it is that you do. Call upon Allah. Set down tobacco. Pray in any of a million ways or just simply breathe.

It is time to do something different now. For generations those in power have shown us to meet violence with violence, to shoot faster and straighter. What has it gotten us but dead?

The Anishanabe tell the story of the seventh generation. We must hear that story. We must live it in each action. It’s not some far away fairy tale. It is real.

As you fall asleep tonight, as you wake in the morning, as you feel your rage rising within you, look inside. Look down that long tunnel and see the baby that is our future, that child who is the seventh generation. Ask yourself “will my words, will my actions or inactions today bring that child warmth, safety, food, and love?” Remember if your actions are right by that child they will be right today.

It is hard. It is the hardest thing you may ever do to choose not to strike blindly in anger but instead to listen and stand strong in rage and revolution instead.

Thinking Deep at 4am

July 18th, 2013

A few weeks ago I had a seizure. It was a night like any other until I went to sleep. I had just gone to bed when my housemate heard unusual noises coming from my room. When I didn’t respond to her calls to me she looked in on me. She found me having what appeared to be what is now known as a generalized tonic-clonic seizure. They are more commonly known as “grand mal.” Because the seizure lasted several minutes and I appeared to be having trouble breathing she called 911.

In Madison we do 911 calls with style. They came with a firetruck and ambulance. I regained consciousness to see half a dozen uniformed men and women surrounding my bed. The really good looking guy was in charge of asking me questions. I did my best to answer those really tough ones like “what day is it?” Who knows what day it is when you’re awoken in the middle of the night? It’s tough to answer questions when you’re struggling to form words and figure out where you are and who these people are.

They decided to take me in to the ER. My housemate, Jennifer, met us there and helped me understand what was happening and was my advocate.

The days following that event were really tough. First, of all dealing with the migraine that came along with the two seizures that I had that night and all the other physical side effects. Secondly, exploring all the fears and new understandings that arose as well.

My family and friends have told me how lucky I was that Jennifer was there. I definitely was lucky. I’d thought for months that I might be having seizures. Now I have proof and can figure out how to address them. On the other hand, however, had she not been there I would have slept through it and just woken with a nasty migraine and nothing to fear.

So what does this have to do with organizing?

Lots I suppose. You can’t deal with the issues until you know what they are and you can’t change them, can’t win until you face the fear. It’s also a reminder to me that I am not permanent. There was a time before me. There will be a time after me. Some day my eyes will close for the last time and there’s a good chance I won’t know it.

How do we continue to do the good work with that knowledge, with a recognition of our miniscule space in the grand realm? Again I have no answers.

I do know that over the years I’ve had hundreds of conversation about burnout, trauma, stress, depression, and hopelessness as a part of what we do. I’ve been a part of many efforts to address such things. Some have helped. Some simply died away themselves.

I know that I struggle with those same things sometimes. I find myself losing my ability to feel the passion that I once felt. I am often left with just sadness and emptiness. I both miss the passion and am thankful to not have that intensity that has worn me out. Still, I look for ways to maintain and build my ability to feel and embrace and love this world and its beings.

We, as activists, organizers, and educators, need to figure out how to not just support others but support each other and ourselves. I find the last the hardest. There is always someone else who needs care, who needs support, who needs strength. They don’t jump in front of me in the line to receive care. I step behind them, push them forward. It’s easier to address another person’s needs than my own.

Tonight, or rather this morning I’m staying awake. I have to. I am going to get my brain scanned in the morning to see why I had those seizures. I have to be in a sleep deprived state. In a little more than an hour I will have been awake for 24 hours straight. Surprisingly I still feel quite awake. In fact, I’m going to take a shower and go for a long walk with the dog when I’m done writing this. It’s been a while since either of us has seen a summer sunrise.

I hope to learn something there that will help me move toward caring more for myself and through that care rebuilding my passion. I ask my fellow activists, organizers, and educators out there, don’t wait for the seizures and brain scans. Show yourself that love and caring that you save for those you defend today and every day. If we are to be in this work for the long haul, we need to be here for the long haul.