Posts Tagged friendship

The Stigma of Connecting Mental Illness and Violence

I’ve been quiet since Friday.  The Connecticut tragedy incited a PTSD reactive response, and to keep myself safe, I pretty much shut down my online presence.  Everything I read, whether it was pleas for better gun control or essays on the prevalence of mental illness in the psyche of your typical mass murderer, sent me spiraling into a place I find difficult to describe.

Even worse, I’m having a manic episode, or I was having it right up until yesterday.  I don’t like talking about my own mental illness.  I’m ashamed of it.  But I try to have courage and talk about it because I hope that by speaking out, I can educate others and help other people who are mentally ill.

This country needs to be willing to look at mental health issues even when there isn’t a tragedy.  We need to attend to it when the small defeats and victories of friends and neighbors take place around us day in and day out.  And for the love of all things good, we need to be really, really careful when something tragic occurs.  Before we blame mental illness or gun control laws or try to assign blame to anyone or any single condition, we’d better take our time to research all the issues and get the answers right.

I’ve read a lot of articles, or to be honest, skimmed the ones that were too painful, that blamed the shooting on mental illness.  Every time I read something like that, I cringe.  The mentally ill are not more likely to commit acts of violence; in fact, they are much more likely to be the victims of violence.  As painful and scary as it is for me to seek help when I’m feeling ill, it’s tenfold times more painful and scary to get the help I need in a charged atmosphere of blame-storming for a heinous mass murder.

As S.E. Smith wrote:

As always in cases of rampage violence, mental illness has been dragged into the mix, and I’ve been watching the Internet for the last three days with a growing sense of both deja vu and horror. None of the things being said are new — all of them are in fact very bone-achingly familiar — and all of them are extremely unhelpful, dangerous and counterproductive.

The American Psychiatric Association states that the vast majority of people who commit violent crimes do not suffer from mental illness.

Substance abuse is a much bigger risk factor for violent behavior; in people with untreated mental illness (a shockingly large number due to the difficulty involved in accessing services), drug abuse is a confounding factor in acts of violence in many cases, not the underlying mental illness. Socioeconomic status, age, gender and history of violence are also more significant indicators of the risk of violence.

You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to be injured by someone who suffers from schizophrenia.

And yet if you believe the stories and anecdotes widely published this weekend, you will do what people typically do: you will stay the hell away from mentally ill people.  Each time a tragic event like the one in Connecticut occurs and mental illness is raised as a proximate cause, people pull away even more from the mentally ill.  In other words, the very stigma associated with mental illness intensifies, and those of us who most need love, compassion and support receive even less.mentalillnessstigma

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I get the treatment and the care and the compassion that so many of my ill brethren do not receive.  Most people don’t even know that I’m ill.  You see, I know the warning signs.  In the case of manic episodes, my mind starts racing.  Creative thoughts pile onto creative thoughts, and then it gets faster and faster and I can’t stop working won’t stop working don’t want to stop working and it’s amazing the things I can get done . . . but I feel an overload, an imbalance, a systems shutdown approaching.  But like a jet plane hurtling through the air on cruise control, I cannot switch directions, not even when I know exactly how it’s going to end: nose down in the mountainside.

Crashing hurts, and it makes no sense to an outsider, but with time and medication and therapy, I’ve gotten much better at engineering less destructive crash landings.  The most important thing I do is to radio ahead to the tower, or tell a few friends that I’m losing altitude too fast, and that I am, frankly, feeling ill.  In other words, despite the stigma that attaches to my illness, I reach out for the help I need.

I was on the phone this morning with one of my best friends, and she just sort of sat with me.  She told me that she loved me no matter what, and that she wasn’t going anywhere, and that my illness didn’t make her not want to be my friend.  In fact, a few of my friends called me.  They won’t let me fall through the cracks, and when I crash land, they’re there to pick up the pieces.

That’s what grieves me about so many of the articles I tried so hard not to read this weekend.  For every one that begged for compassion, three more confused mental illness with violent propensities.  And you know what this does?  It rains down shame, ugly, dark sickly-familiar shame on those of us who suffer from mental illness.  As gut-wrenchingly difficult as it is to seek treatment, this sort of fear-mongering makes it that much harder for people like me to seek help.

It takes courage to seek help, and it takes courage to admit you’re ill.  Fallacious arguments that connect mental illness to violent propensities make it even harder.  Please have compassion and use discernment when you address issues of mental illness.  After all, you never know who could be affected by the words you use.

 

 

 

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My Faith: Why I Cannot Do Otherwise

I wrote the following last week . . .
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I’ve been thinking about my presence on Facebook. As my page has gotten bigger, I’ve met more and more lovely people. Unfortunately, a few folks have said some unkind, sarcastic or even abusive things on my page. It got so bad the other night that I thought about changing the way I talk to you. Maybe, I thought, I should try harder to build an audience of potential readers by developing more of a persona. Maybe I should not be so raw and real all the time. Those of you who’ve been around for awhile know the good, the bad, and for sure the crazy about me. If I’m struggling, I talk about it.

But I’m about so much more than my struggles. I’m about joy and persevering and romantic ideals and kindness and seeking the good. After all, if I’m running from Hell, I’m heading towards Heaven, right?

But heck, I thought, maybe I need to view this as a business. I should conduct more giveaways and promotions and use my influence to make a dollar . . .um no. Hell no. I honestly believe my writing will sell on its own, without me wasting my time and your time with whine-beg-sellathons.

Then, I thought, maybe I should put on some armor and stop talking about my personal issues so much. Maybe it’s time to put on another one of my many personas. But you know what? I’m done with armor, personas and masks. I don’t have the desire or energy to hide behind some fake persona. I’m daring to write and live in my own clothes, using my own words, and I refuse to compromise.

When I thought about it, I realized that some people just aren’t going to like me. And you know what? I like being liked, but at what price? I mean, should I change how I act just so more people will like me? No. I must take heart, respect myself and do my best with the gifts, talents and imperfections that God has given me. And if some people don’t like the authentic me, then that’s okay. Really—it’s okay.

I’m grateful for those of you who enjoy following my stuff. I’m also grateful to those people who gave me a shot and decided I wasn’t their cup of tea. Sometimes I learn the most from the times I’ve failed or, in this case, from the people who have not stayed with me. I’ve learned that I can’t change what I do or how I act to keep from failing or to convince someone not to leave me.  I’m going to keep being E. L. Farris (hey I love going third person lol). I will keep doing my best as a writer and as a human being. That’s all any of us can do.

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The thing is, I’ve been thinking about a lot more than my presence on Facebook lately. I never thought I’d be a born-again Christian. Seriously, I never thought I’d say the words. I never thought it. I’m a woman of reason–really, I am. But I have always been profoundly religious, too.

I grew up in a family where there was much religion but almost no faith.  More than faith, religion or even reason, there was confusion and noise and anger. Amid all of that, I searched for Him, but when I walked around studying the Bible alone, they laughed at me. Called me a wanna-be Saint, a pretender, a phony, and an idiot.

My birth family calls themselves Catholic but refuse to submit to the sacrament of Confession, or Reconciliation. I left the Catholic flock but since then, I did try to return. I fell on my knees and confessed my sins to a priest . . . I even confessed the sins done unto me. Despite the best efforts of that priest, the Catholic church would not take me back unless I recanted my marriage in a Protestant church. I could not do this, and so they cast me out.

That made me want to give up on religion. I didn’t, but I wanted to.

I kept searching.

I have no idea what’s really the right religion for everyone else. Each one of us needs to find his or her own road, and wherever it leads you, I hope that God’s love will be with you. Always. All I know is that God never gave up on me, even when I wanted to give up on finding Him.

I’ve been searching for so long. I’ve been searching for so freakin’ long, and every time I was close, real close, something or someone knocked me off the road I was on. But He never left me.

What pains me today, and I’ll be honest with you–the pain of rejection cuts way too deep still–is that I will lose friends. I think I may have already lost some. It hurts. It hurts that even as I will not judge where they walk or what road they’re on, they will hear the words “Born-Again” and slam the door shut on me. I’ve lost so much in this life. I don’t want to lose anymore or anyone.

It hurts. Because I cannot do otherwise. I cannot choose between friends and my faith. It simply is no choice. I’m quoting Martin Luther, by the way. When he attached his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the Church Door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, he explained, with an anguish I can all too well understand, that he could not do otherwise. Here are his words:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture or clear reasoning that I am in error – for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves – I cannot recant, for I am subject to the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. It is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against one’s conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. So help me God. Amen.

Like Luther, I stand where I stand. I am impelled to state my faith. It will sadden–it does sadden– me if I lose friends because of this, but this is my faith. I cannot apologize for it. I should not–must not–apologize it. My conscience requires otherwise. As Martin Luther said, so help me God.

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Friendship and Politics

As my Facebook newsfeed fills with snarky barbs, I sigh and fantasize that the 2012 Presidential Election on the sixth of November has already passed.  I could write about the decline of manners; after all, it’s a time-honored pastime to lament how nasty elections have become.  The problem with this focus on the decline of manners is that it ignores just how rude, if not downright defamatory our American forebears were when engaged in political debate.

Take the Presidential Election of 1800, which was one of the most insult-filled in American history.  In John Adams, historian David McCullough painted the following picture of the opposing campaigns:

If Jefferson was a Jacobin, a shameless southern libertine, and a ‘howling’ atheist, Adams was a Tory, a vain Yankee scold, and, if truth be known, ‘quite mad.’ See John Adams at 544.

 Civility did not improve in later 19th Century elections.  In the 1884 election between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine, Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock.  Blaine supporters chanted what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?”  The response to this, after Cleveland won the election, was: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”).

If public political civility has not declined, it has not improved a great deal either.  Perhaps it is impossible for us to maintain polite discourse when the issues seem so important.  Utter the word “abortion,” for example, and a wide swath of society loses the ability to hear what individuals with opposing viewpoints think.  So many of us are ruled by our passions, and so terms like “baby killers” and “women haters” get bandied around, and all the noise and vituperation drowns out calmer considerations.

Don’t get me wrong: philosophy matters.  It governs how we behave.  And it often dictates our political opinions.  Sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s possible to really love someone whose philosophy and governing principles differ a great deal from my own.  In fact, a friend of a friend posited as much last night, and it made me sad, because many of my closest friends hold dear beliefs different from my own.  Are these friendships real and enduring?  Will they last until November 7th?

As I’ve advanced in age, I’ve forged enduring friendships with people of diverse beliefs.  I think friendship can and should transcend political and philosophical differences.  For that to happen, a few things must occur.

First, each person must really listen to what the other has to say.  That’s not always easily done, but so often, I’ve learned something from my friends.  For example, I am a staunch opponent of health care socialization, because I oppose governmental interference with the economy.  Setting aside the fact that the health care system has been partially socialized for decades, I’ve learned from my friends who support the President’s health care plan that the current system often fails the indigent in a heartbreaking way.  Indeed, I’m no longer 100% certain that socializing health care would hurt both individuals and the economy.

Second, we must assume that our friends are benevolent and mean well when they formulate their respective political philosophies.  Take my views on health care, for example.  I want the best for everyone, and I truly think a system based on the free market would lead to lower rates and better care for everyone.  One of the big assumptions I’ve made is that in a free market, charity will cover the indigent.  I wish for no one to fall through the cracks.  In other words, my intentions are good, and I both expect and hope that my friends who support Obama’s plan see that.

Third, we must admit there is a possibility we’re wrong, and that means being confident enough in our own beliefs that we can set aside our egos and consider all viewpoints.  Continuing with the health care example, I realize I might be wrong about private charity covering the indigent.  People may well fall through the cracks in a private system, and this troubles me.  What if I’m wrong?  People could be hurt—they even could die if they cannot afford health care, and this seems unacceptable, does it not?

Fourth, we must seek commonalities rather than emphasize our differences.  As a Libertarian-Republican, I believe in economic and social liberty, which means I agree with the Democratic Party almost as often as I agree with the Republican Party.  While I’m not dishonest about my views, I tend to discuss social liberty more with Democrats, and economic liberty more with Republicans.  Maybe I should argue more with my friends, but my friendships surely would deteriorate if I turned every chat into a debate.

That gets me to my final point: friendship is important.  My friends make me feel loved, valued and connected.  They make me a better woman.  And I’m in these friendships, I hope, for the long haul.  Political differences seem to fade over time.  After all, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams rekindled their friendship in their final years, I suspect because of their shared experiences and love of country.  They were both great men and patriots.

Next time you’re tempted to say or write something about politics, think about how it will impact the people you love.  Let that love guide you to focus on commonalities rather than differences.  And as you choose what words you use, remember: words matter.  And all of this will be over on November 7th.

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Musings on Collaboration and Friendship by Deborah Bryan

I am honored and excited to introduce my dear friend Deborah Bryan, the author of The Monster’s Daughter and Memos from Your Closet Monster, as our guest today. What first struck me about Deb (besides the swell name of her Facebook page) was her keen intelligence, strong conscience and grace, and I think my first impression was dead-to-rights accurate.

In December, 2011, Deb and I first started writing these notes, or epistles, back and forth to one another, beginning a correspondence that has covered almost every subject imaginable.  Often we talk about writing and the projects we’re either working on or dreaming about starting. If I am struggling with a blog post, a scene, or even the concept for a new book, I can bounce all of my ideas off Deb. I value Deb’s input into my creative process so much that in a couple of weeks, I will be sending Deb Draft Two of my upcoming novel, Ripple, for her review and commentary.

Deb and I talk about far more than work. Often, we talk about philosophy, politics, social reform, parenting, psychology and personal issues in our  lives. I’ve laughed, cried and even argued with Deb. Whether I am confused, amused or feeling abused, I can call or write Deb, and I always smile when I see her name in my in-box or hear her voice on the telephone.

I hope that Deb and I will continue to talk, work and laugh together for many years to come. I cannot emphasize enough how gifted she is or how much I value her friendship. Her latest book is a must-buy, and it is available through Amazon on the attached link: Memos from your Closet Monster.

Without further ado, I introduce Deb Bryan:

Conversations with good friends don’t really end and begin so much as they continue in different times and places.

El and I hold conversations across a half-dozen forums, frequently seeming to leave one conversation behind in favor of a new one elsewhere. While it might seem this way, it’s not the truth; we are always engaged in conversation, and it’s always coherent between us, no matter how it might seem from the outside.

A couple of months ago, I emailed El to let her know that I was stressed out, and why. She wrote back almost immediately in an email to which I did not reply.

The next morning, however, I awakened to a short, sweet personal message on Facebook asking me to consider taking a new approach to my writing. El knew I’d been slowly working through edits on the second book in my YA Glass Ball trilogy. Although she loved its opening book, The Monster’s Daughter, she wasn’t convinced that it was what I needed to be working on right now. In a couple of short sentences, she explained what she felt I should be working on, and why.

As I read her so-short email, my entire perspective changed.

I tabled editing my trilogy’s second novel and considered what I might write, were I to follow El’s suggestion. Inspiration didn’t strike immediately, but I did let El know that she’d reoriented my entire perspective with her email.

The Monster’s Daughter, Book 1 in the trilogy

A couple of days later, I found my new project. I wouldn’t even have been looking for that project, but for an early morning email from a friend who not only felt certain things, but took the time out to express them. Like that she believed in me, more than I believed in myself.

I started working on that new project immediately but slowly. As I worked on it, I wondered, “Is writing this enough, or is there something else I need to be doing?” El is constantly thinking not only about the words she’s shaping, but about other projects and ways for allowing her words to shine in new ways and places. I wanted to try thinking a little more like her—not just pushing out word after word, but looking at everything from another angle altogether.

This exercise led me to ask myself why some of my best blogs shouldn’t be aggregated into an ebook, thus enabling them to reach a whole new audience from the one they had previously reached.

I emailed El to ask her opinion.

There were many steps between that and last week’s publication of my new ebook, Memos from Your Closet Monster. El was involved in each of them.

More than that, she was the inspiration for them. Thanks to both her offered perspective and her encouragement, a book that included but was more than the sum total of some of my most powerful blogs came into existence.

Every day, as I work on my new project, I say thanks for El and friends everywhere who inspire their friends to think in different ways. To see themselves through their friends’ eyes.

I may never yet have met El in person, but she has taught me best of all that in-person meeting isn’t required for someone to reach straight into the heart of another’s life and change it, for the better, forever.

 

© 2012 by E. L. Farris and Deborah Bryan

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Writing a Novel is Like Running a Marathon

“I’m going to make it.”  That was my mantra during the first marathon I ran.  I felt unequal to the task, and yet I knew the course and the hills and the pain in my own body would not stop me.  Even if it killed me, I would cross that finish line.

The same mantra got me through writing a novel.  At 2:33 p.m., May 22, 2012, I typed “The End” on the last page of Ripple, my first novel.  Don’t get me wrong: I still need to do edits and deal with the business aspect of publishing it, but all of that is comparable to getting my beaten body back to the car and home after the race has ended.  And believe me, that is not an easy task.

For example, my fourth marathon took place in the mountains that surround Harper’s Ferry and the Antietam battlefield.  The day I ran that, I had bronchitis (hey I am a runner which means I am a lunatic) and the temperature was 43 degrees.  And it was raining.  At the finish line, I stood there in the rain and waited a half an hour for my husband to finish.  My man took one look at me as I stood there shivering from head to toe, and escorted me to the medical tent to be treated for hypothermia.  And then we walked a mile, and caught a bus to the car.  From there, we drove 90 minutes back home.

Like birthing a novel, running a marathon is an odyssey of pain and guts and determination.  One step follows another like one page piles on the pages before it.  When I run marathons, I must overcome my own weaknesses; indeed, I must forge strength from the fear and pain that chews away at me.  When I wrote Ripple, I had to stare down my own history of abuse and addiction and continue creating a story that in so many ways was rooted in my pain and troubled past.

When I run marathons, I fed off the crowds of strangers and friends who lines the streets.  As I have written Ripple, I have shared my struggles with the followers on my blog and Facebook page.  Their support has propelled me to the finish line.

To train for the marathons, I relied on the love and support of my family.  When I left my husband with the kids so many Saturdays and Sundays, they accepted my absences with grace, just as they respected and supported my need for solitude while writing Ripple.  I missed some family movie nights and some trips to the park, and never has my husband complained.

For two of my marathons, my husband, my soulmate, ran at my side or sometimes a bit behind me.  At the Marine Corps Marathon, we held hands and crossed the finish line together.  It was one of the best moments of our lives, and surely the stuff dreams are made of.

Throughout the writing process, I have had the great fortune to work with, laugh with, and even cry with my writing partner, Renée Schuls-Jacobson.  I wrote many passages with her on the other line, listening, adding, and improving the words I suggested.  When I called in despair, and asked, “Does this suck,” she promised me it didn’t.  If I wrote a “disaster chapter,” she was honest with me, but like a running buddy, rode shotgun with me and helped me fix it.

Toward the end of Ripple, I almost fell apart as I penned an especially graphic abuse scene.  It brought my demons back.  I had reached “The Wall,” which is what marathoners call it when the lactic acid builds up in their muscles at around the 21-mile mark.  I wanted to quit because writing the scene made me want to start drinking again.  She listened to me.  And then the best writing buddy in the world pushed me to keep moving.  And I did.

The best thing about writing Ripple, aside from finishing it, has been the friends I’ve made along the way.  Thank you so much, all of you.  And most of all, thank you Renée.  I love you.  And you’ll finish the 26.2 miles soon.  I promise.

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Anger Has Benefits

Over the last 24 hours, a dear friend and I have been having a deep talk from one coast to the other about conflict.  To read Deb Bryan’s take on why conflict is good, please swing by her blog, The Monster in Your Closet, today.  But wait!  Before you dash off, I’d like to add my own perspective on how conflict is good, if handled in a healthy way.

I like to argue and debate, and I always have.  As a child, I raised my hand too damn much in class.  Perhaps that is why I went on to pace in front of the jury box and roll out legal arguments before judges as a young lawyer.  My husband and I met in law school, and our idea of a hot date night is to debate penumbras, perpetuities and possibilities.  To an outsider, we may appear as Bickering Bickerstaffs, but we can separate a rational and pleasant difference of opinion from a personal attack.

Speaking of personal attacks, I cannot tolerate them.  Epithets and insults trigger memories of an abusive childhood, but this post isn’t about my childhood.  It is about the universal need all humans have to express disagreement and anger in a healthy way.

That brings me to the first rule of engagement: never, ever be cruel.  Be honest.  Get angry.  But never be cruel.

Expressing anger without resorting to cruelty or personal attacks is necessary for developing character and strength.

 Anger, when harnessed, serves as the impetus for growth and positive transformation.  It can make us champions for change.

The second rule of engagement relates to constructive criticism.

Often, we help each other become better people by offering constructive criticism in a loving way.  I am blessed with strong friends who care about me enough to let me know when I have made a mistake, and to suggest a different course.  Sometimes a critical word from a friend hurts like hell, but disapproval expressed with respect has made me both a better writer and a better woman.

The third rule of engagement is to argue in private, without making a public kerfuffle.  I’ve violated this rule before, especially in writing.  Just a few weeks ago, I argued with a dear friend in a dramatic and obnoxious way on my Facebook Page, and regretted it immediately.  We made up, but the ironic thing is that we solved things offline, out of the public eye.  In the future, when I get upset, I will pick up the phone and keep the dissent out of the limelight.  It’s just better that way.

The fourth rule of engagement is a corollary of the third rule: do not pile on.  As a child, whenever my mom would upbraid me, my father and my brother would climb aboard the yelling train.  And that felt like hell.  If someone argues in front of you, try to stay out of the fray; if, on the other hand, you are one of the contestants, do not seek or accept alliances.  Supporting allies is great, until it starts a world war.

What do I mean?  Recall, if you will, how World War I started.

For those of you bored by history, skip to the next paragraph.  World War 1 began after Serbian nationalists assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  This event led the Austro-Hungarian government to declare war against the Serbians.  Germany supported its ally, Austro-Hungary.  Russia supported Serbia.  Germany therefore declared war on Russia and on their ally, France.  Great Britain, France’s ally, declared war against Germany that same day.

The fifth and final rule of engagement is don’t seek to have the last word, unless it is to say, “I love you.”

You cannot create harmony if you insist on always receiving a perfect apology or having the last word.  If someone tries to end an argument, set aside your anger and your pride.  Make peace.  You will be happier.  And the world will be a little better.

Peace and love to you always.  And now I must run.  If you have a few minutes, please tell me your own views on conflict.  What are your rules of engagement?

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Social Media: A Defense of Facebook

A few friends of mine have quit Facebook in much the same way that the characters in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged departed from their corporations and all-too public lives in search of fulfillment.  I, on the other hand, have often left the brick and mortar world around me in search of meaning and connection to others via social media.  I do not question the “Hands-Free” movement; indeed, I frown too when drivers drive while distracted or diners eat while staring at their iPhones and iPads.  I don’t want to be that mother who misses out on the milestones of her own children’s lives because she gets lost inside a virtual world that she carries around in her pocket.

Rewind two years.  I glared at the phone and prayed for it to ring and it almost never did.  I was too shy to pick the receiver up and call anyone, so I felt lonely.  From the moment I traded in my Audi TT for A Volkswagen Passat and bore my first child almost nine years ago, I lived with this searing, cold, sickening loneliness born of intellectual and often physical isolation.  One day, I prowled the hallways of a downtown “BIG LAW” firm; a day later, I stared at the twinkling lights rotating around my daughter’s Winnie the Pooh mobile.  Each time the mobile stopped rotating and playing the same ditty, I would twirl it up and replay it again, until the tune felt as familiar as my social security number.

I still remember that little song and like so many other things from the last several years, it makes me feel happy and sad at the same time.  As an ex-lawyer who had never changed a diaper, the initiation into motherhood was messy, stinky and sudden.  I went from typing legal briefs and addressing judges in the formalistic language of “Your Honor” and “May it please the Court” to singing “The Noble Duke of York” out of tune to a captive audience of babes and toddlers.

For a few years, I lost myself.  My day and my friendships with other mothers revolved around the playgrounds and the preschools our children frequented.  And these friendships took on no more depth than an after school TV special.  In the past, lacking real connections to other women didn’t bother me because I had a career and a life outside the home.  I had a point.  I had value, independent of the children I loved so very much.

And then it changed, gradually and then all at once.  Social media drove me out of my claustrophobic four walls and helped me rediscover myself.  How, you ask, could virtual relationships help a lonely woman?  And how can a relationship born of the Internet result in authentic connections or mean more than ones engendered by “real life?” In my case, Facebook helps me to connect to other people all over the world who share something much more important than our zip code: common interests in writing, art and running.

Facebook benefits me as a writer even more than it helps me connect with and make friends with like-minded people.  If I cannot find a word for a passage in a blog post I am creating, I can ask those kind souls who follow my Facebook Page Running from Hell with El and get a quick answer, a smile and a joke.  Some of these online connections run deep.  For example, I met my writing partner, Renée Jacobson, via Facebook and she has become both a dear friend and an incredible source of support, advice and help to me as I work on my novel, Ripple.

Most of you know that I am writing Ripple and that I hope to give birth to it by the end of the year.  I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I also hope that many of the Facebook Page administrators with whom I interact will help me market my finished product.  And while I understand that not every person who follows me on Running from Hell with El will buy my book, perhaps some of them will.  In other words, Facebook benefits me on a personal and potentially professional level and for this I am eternally grateful.

Facebook is the main form of social media I use, but it is not the only one.  I tweet on Twitter and I pin on Pinterest, but I am far from expert at using either social media source.  For an expert view on how to use Twitter, please see Nina Badzin’s invaluable article, “Why I follow You on Twitter (and Why I Don’t).”  To discover the many benefits offered by Twitter to writers in particular, please do check out Kristen Lamb’s Blog.  And for an amazing tutorial on the professional benefits offered to writers and artists via Pinterest please see August McLaughlin’s Blog.

In the meantime, I love to hear from you!  How do you use social media and how does it benefit you?  Would you like to escape from the endless immersion of social media to the mountains or do you see infinite frontiers of hope and opportunity when you scan the social media landscape?

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Pride Matters: Chasing Miles and Time

I squinted into the darkness and tried to read my Nike sports band and my Droid 2.  3.02 miles.  69.78 miles in five days.  11:53 p.m.  It was time.  In one minute I would open the thick laundry room door.  In my mind, I rehearsed kicking off my shoes, dashing upstairs, and uploading my miles into the second slot on the back of my computer, which was the most reliable one. If all went right, the three miles would register in the Team Bash challenge, resulting in a narrow victory of 0.1 mile.

At 11:54 p.m., I tapped my mouse, plugged the portable zip drive from my watch into my iMac, and Firefox connected me to the Nike running site.  I was in.   Or was I?  We trailed by almost three miles.  I texted by dear friend and virtual running friend and she wrote back, “I’ve been watching the computer screen ever since I uploaded my 7 miles at 11:45 p.m.  Nothing has registered.  Are you sure you uploaded?”

11:57 p.m.  My head burned and my heart started to race.  Where were the missing miles?  We were losing by 2.92 miles.  “Damn you Nike,” I howled.  Please send my miles to the team challenge.  I could do nothing else.  The miles had left my zip drive and transported via the Internet to the main Nike Server.  Proof of my run showed on my Nike profile but not in the challenge.  The seconds ticked at frantic pace, and then for an instant, time stopped.  My mind drifted back a few hours, when we still had time.

6:30 p.m.  After Easter Dinner, I smiled at my husband.  “I am going to do whatever it takes to win this thing,” and he grinned back at me in silent agreement and respect.  We’ve been married a long time, and when he met me, I was, as I am now, a runner.  The passage of my life is measured as much in miles as it is in minutes.  In fact, I have the uncanny ability to know what time it is when I am running.  The synapses in my brain that measure miles and minutes have been finely honed by years of calculating the one based on the other.

8:30 p.m. I limped upstairs and uploaded six more miles, which brought Sunday’s total to 17 miles.  My hip throbbed.  Both Achilles Tendons were swollen and painful to the touch.  I sat down in front of my computer and opened the Nike site via Google Chrome.  All day long, we had traded the lead with the Speed Zombies.  Now the lead stood at 7 miles.  I need to stop fighting and take care of myself.

“Travis?”  My husband sat all sprawled out on the maroon leather sofa watching Fox News.  He glanced at me.  “I need you to hide my sports watches.”  This is a drill we go through every once in a while after I’ve logged too many miles in a Captain Ahab-like pursuit of another runner in a virtual challenge.  I don’t care if my friends think I’m nuts.  All I really care about is the silence that enters my mind as my feet tap the pavement.  I run so that I can feel still.

After I ripped off my sweaty running gear, I stood under a hot shower and ran shampoo and conditioner through my long, straggly dark blond hair and luxuriated in the smell of the Dove soap and Noxzema facial cleanser coating my light skin.  Clean again, I kissed my three children goodnight and curled up next to my husband with ice packs and a bowl of ice cream and we watched ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.  I wonder if Sara is running yet.  “Josh Hamilton steps to the plate.”  Is Joe from the other team running right now?  “If Josh can get his off-the-field habits under control . . . “ I want to win this thing.  I dropped my bowl into the sink and glanced at the clock.  It’s 10:25 p.m.  I hate waiting for the results.  The announcers droned on and I asked my husband, “Do you mind when I run crazy like this?”

My husband replied without a hint of inflection, “It depends on the context.  On why you do this.”  This was an easy question and I exclaimed, eyes flashing with excitement, “Pride.  I race for pride.  No more, no less.”  He nodded at me.  “In that case, no, I don’t mind.  It is noble.”

I grinned my most charming grin.  “Can I have my watches back?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No.  What will happen if you lose?”  He asked me, with a gentle touch on my arm.

“I will be lost if I cannot try and we lose.  And thus miserable.”  I hugged him and he put his head on my shoulder.  “Poor thing.”

“If you give me my watches, I will do the taxes tomorrow,” I pleaded.  He pulled away from me and laughed.  “Done!”

10:45 p.m.  Sara had already walked 3 miles.  “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” she wrote.  I laughed.  We were too tired to run, so we were walking and texting as we walked.  We knew the other team was also walking in the pitch-black neighborhoods in the sundry suburbs where they resided.

11:04 p.m.  I ran into my neighbor, a retired soldier and wise ass.  He and I walked around the block and reminisced about road races.

11:15 p.m.  I checked my Facebook Feed.  Joe had loaded five more miles.  I cursed and told Sara.  And a minute later, I wrote, “We can still win.”  She replied, “Yup.”  I smiled.  She wanted to win as badly as I did, so I was not alone.

11:20 p.m.  I set my Droid on top of the washer and jogged upstairs to check the standings.  A lump in my throat formed when I saw we trailed by ten miles.  It wasn’t possible to catch up, was it?  No matter.  I had to try.  Travis was asleep so I tiptoed around while I switched into shorts and a light t-shirt.  I got outside and texted Sara: “I am running now,” and she said she was too.

Exhaustion peeled away, replaced by adrenaline.  My Achilles did not ache.  My hip did not throb except on hills.  Land midfoot, stand tall and move fast, El.  Land gentle, and keep moving.  I needed to complete 3 miles in less than 35 minutes, and as I raced the clock, I tracked my progress and kept moving and in between steps I thought about running ultras and the idea felt harmonious to me.  The moon rose and appeared through the clouds and in the moment I was in the lightness of my being.

11:40 p.m.  I was at the 1.7-mile mark.  I had enough time to complete the three miles.  Sara told me she had 6.2 miles and I typed back, “You need seven.”  Five minutes later, she replied, “Got it.”  And then it came down to me: the last runner on the board.  I ran alone, pursued by a shadow and a ticking clock.  The miles measured the dwindling minutes and the dwindling minutes limited the miles I could run.

Twenty minutes later, Sara and I sat, separated by 3,000 miles, and watched the clocks on our computers hit 12 a.m. EST and 9 p.m. Pacific, respectively.  The standings remained stuck; the miles not yet transferred into the challenge.  Several hours later, the missing miles showed up but it was too late.  The rules allow for no exceptions and we were okay with that.  Every runner lives and dies by the clock.  We can move the miles and we can chase time but we cannot change time.

Vince Lombardi once said that “Winning isn’t everything; it is the only thing,” but I disagree.  We ran for our team and we ran for pride.  Pride matters.  It always matters.

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Friendship, Racing and the Missing Marathon Mile

Friendship, Racing and the Missing Marathon Mile

            I jogged up the hill and spotted Sam R. about 10 yards in front of the finish line and we grinned and exchanged high-fives.  Sam’s Rapunzel-like, silver-blond, braided hair glinted in the bright sunlight and her easy smile warmed me.  A few strides later, I crossed the finish line and frowned.  I felt no elation.  Not yet.  My marathon was not over.  My watch read 25.86 and though I had added as much mileage as I could during the last 3 miles, I still had not made up the missing mile and damned if I was going to stop.  I grabbed my medal and jogged past all of the empty food and liquid stations and slowed down as soon as Sam rounded the corner and limped toward me.

“Come on, wanna run my last bit with me? They cut a mile loop off the course without telling us, and they wouldn’t let us go back and run it, and I only made some of it up before the trail car caught me and told me I had to run to the finish line or else take a ride.”

“WHAT?” Sam exclaimed.  “And sure I will run with you, assuming I can.”  She grimaced and we both laughed at our aching legs.  Sam trotted along beside me, around a corner, down an alley, and we traded war stories regarding our time on the course.

It all had started more than 5 hours earlier, when I crossed the starting line at 8:30 a.m.  Or maybe it started on Friday morning when I swung into Dulles airport and picked Sam up by the Virgin Atlantic door.  Perhaps it even started seven months ago when we signed up for the inaugural Suntrust Rock-n-Roll Marathon.  I promised via Facebook that, “it will constitute a fabulous Boston qualifier Sam!! It is almost completely flat and it will be cold on March 17th, just like it was during the 2011 marathon.  And you can stay with me and we’ll have a blast  . . . come on Sam!!  Let’s do this!!!”

Months later, a week before the marathon, I had this dream.  In it, I was running in a marathon but I saw a dangerous-looking house and so I stole a police car, drove a mile, and after parking the cop’s car, continued running.  Then I realized that I had cut a mile off my race, and fear, shame, dread and a sense of dishonor flooded me, so in the dream, I figured out how to add the missing mile before I finished the race and woke up in a puddle of sweat.  It turns out that this dream may have been a premonition of sorts; at a minimum, it gave me the mental training I needed to handle an otherwise unforeseeable obstacle on the day of the real marathon.

A serious challenge greeted us on the morning of the 17th: near-record heat.  Each of the first eight marathons I have completed has taken place at sub-50 degree temperatures.  The average high temperature in our area on March 17th is 56 degrees; the low, 36 degrees.  Saturday morning dawned with a low of 60 degrees and it heated up within a couple of hours to 76 degrees, with high humidity.  Neither Sam nor I had trained in warm weather and we both reckoned that the heat would slow us down.  In my case, I was coming off the flu; was running with a few extra pounds and for the first time had undertrained (rather than over-trained) for a marathon.

At the starting line, we parted ways with a nod.  We had been talking more or less nonstop for hours but we both had real serious looks on our faces as we searched for our corrals.  I talked with two sisters and a few other runners in my corral.  The one sister, a tall brunette, had qualified for Boston with a 3:30 marathon and she and I tried to convince her little sister to sign up for a marathon too.  Today, like the vast majority of runners, they ran the half-marathon.  We, in the middle of a vast sea of runners, at least 25,000 strong, crossed the line at 8:31 a.m.  Sam had crossed the line 20 minutes ahead of me.

Sweat poured off me at the two-mile mark.  At the first water stop, I grabbed a lime-green Gatorade, a water and poured a second cup of water over my head, which I would repeat for the subsequent 10-12 water stops.  At the three-mile mark, I passed by a table containing salt packets and shrugged off the need.  Too much salt makes me feel ill, and I felt nauseated almost the entire race, except for the rare moments when we passed through tunnels.  One of the medications I take makes me more susceptible to heat exhaustion and the almost constant sun exposure taxed my reserves from the very start of the race.

A few months ago, the Rock n Roll series took over the Suntrust Marathon, which had been a small, regional event, and they marketed the hell out of it until they sold out the race.  Just as in Las Vegas, the Rock n Roll event organizers proved unprepared for the crowds, the heat and needed supplies.  In DC, for example, they promised 7 gel stations but only provided 3 gel stops, and none between 15 miles and 23 miles, when runners need it the most.  And they ran out of water and Gatorade for the slower runners at some of the later water stops.

At least in DC the Rock n Roll organizers did not serve water that made runners ill as they did in Vegas.  As one friend said of the Vegas race, “Something went wrong with the water and made a great number of people ill.”  Indeed, the Vegas Rock n Roll event was, in the words of another friend, “a great debacle.”  As a runner who has completed untold races I am honor-bound to add that the DC Rock n Roll marathon amounted to a great fiasco as well.

What else happened?  Without adequate notice prior to the start of the race, they cut the time limit from 6 hours to 5 hours and 30 minutes, which is barely adequate for many runners during normal temperatures.  I learned of this at the 14-mile mark and the news of it shook me, since I had followed an unusually conservative first half strategy; indeed, I included walk breaks from the 2-mile mark to guard against heat stroke.  Another veteran runner in a violet tank pointed behind her and told me that the tail car stalked us and was sweeping folks off the course, which made no sense.  At no point had the course organizers advised us of any “sweeping” strategy in advance of the 20-mile mark.  From the 14-mile mark to the 25-mile mark, the tail car drove back and forth from a few miles behind us to a few miles ahead of us and ordered some runners into a white van.

I was furious and as sick as I felt until then, adrenaline soaked into my system and I upped my pace and tried to reduce walk breaks.  No one is tossing me in any damn van.  They would have to hit me over the head to get me off this course.  Occasionally, I stopped sweating and a motherly voice in my head whispered, “Walk, El.  No ambulance rides.”  And I have run through much harsher conditions.  I knew I was going to be okay as long as I did not push too hard.  Meanwhile, I kept reviewing my calculations, checking my sports band and I realized that I was on track for a 5:40 marathon finish.  So long as the 5:30 time limit included an additional 45 minutes for the last runner to cross the starting line, I was nowhere near “sweep-worthy.”

The course had thinned out after the mass of half-marathoners veered left and the full marathoners turned right at the 12-mile mark, and the course was so poorly marked that at times, I searched for other runners.  I had run almost the same course last year and worked in DC for several years and still, it was hard to follow the route.  Very few course volunteers directed runners.  At times, the only thing that demarcated the course and out of bounds areas were orange cones.  And despite a multitude of ramp-mile checks in the first 14 miles, from mile 15 to the end of the race, no mile checks existed.  In other words, someone could have received a ride from mile 16 to mile 25 and still have been counted as an official finisher.  As it turned out, this is almost exactly what happened.

I coasted over a bridge and passed mile 21 at a reasonable clip.  I remained on track for a 5:40 finish according to chip time, which would have me across the line at 6:10 approximately.  Ahead of me stood a line of orange cones.  Runners headed towards me and turned left (their left or my right) but the only way I could go was to my right.  I followed the course and after about a quarter-mile I gasped.  I saw the 23-mile marker.  I glanced at my sports band, which has been calibrated and had tracked the course mile markers accurately until then, but now it read 22 miles.  I was confused.  I ran a few more steps then stopped and dithered for a few minutes.  Then I turned and started back, thinking I could retrace my steps and find the 22-mile marker.  I almost ran into this other runner, a juggler, who said to me, “They closed the course to us.”

“What the hell?”

“They said we could try to run it but we could get lost and there will be no police around.”

I glanced around at the post-apocalyptic environs surrounding me on DC’s famed SE side and shivered.  I am not a very large woman.  I kept running in the direction of the finish line and cursing and trying to figure out what to do.  I was missing a mile and I felt like a fraud, a liar, and a cheat.

What should I do?  What can I do?  Again and again I thought it through.  For two more miles, I considered my options.  I had to keep running and once I got to the finish line at RFK stadium, I would keep running until my calibrated sports band read 26.2 miles and maybe a bit more to be safe.  But could I, should I, not run over the finish line?  What about the medal?  Should I take it?  Even without a real time?  Of course I would complete the full marathon within a few minutes of receiving the medal, so would it be wrong to take a medal?

As I tried to process all of these options, I struggled with heat exhaustion.  No gel packs and not enough fluids in near record heat left me at a mental and physical disadvantage.  And then I saw my friends with the violet tank running towards me, so I turned and joined her.  “Are you trying to add the missing mile?”  I asked.  “Yes, but they keep threatening to pick me up,” she replied, and nodded toward the tail car a half-mile behind us.  I gave her a fist bump and continued running in the opposite direction from RFK for about a quarter-mile, until the tail car passed me again.

I glanced at my watch.  I had picked up a half-mile and I did not want to get too far from the finish line in case they swept more runners, so I headed back toward RFK.  And then I saw a van holding runners stop.  A woman wearing a Rock n Roll shirt jumped out, opened the door, and let several runners out of the white van.  One of these swept runners joined me and cussed over and over again.  “They swept me.  Should I take a medal?  I haven’t run the full race.”

I reasoned with him.  “Then run the extra distance after you grab the medal.  Or double-back and make it up.”  He went off on how they had shortened the cutoff and he was so bitter, I had trouble understanding him.  Off to my right, a woman staggered but the race organizers ignored her.

Meanwhile, I slowed to a walk because I was not sweating.  Many folks were walking it in.  Even Sam had to walk the last two miles in due to excruciating heat cramps.  And then a race organizer screamed, “All walkers will be picked up.  Anyone not running will be swept in.”  They were shaming us, all of us warriors mind you, into running when our bodies could take no more.

Flabbergasted, I stared down a male race organizer.  “What the hell are you thinking?  Do you not care about liability?  If you pressure someone who has heat exhaustion into running and they die, you realize you will get sued don’t you?”

In a nasal voice he droned, “We did a bunch of these people a favor by dropping them off a mile from the finish line.  Now they can cross the line and get medals.”  I used some choice language and yelled, “You’re offering medals without accomplishment.”  My voice rose higher and higher as I continued to question their honor and their humanity.  “Why hold a race?  Why let people across the line who have not completed the full course?”

Lamely, he replied, “I can understand how you would think that.”  I held the back of my hand up in disgust and continued running.  All I could think of was the Marine Corps Marathon.  They sweep the course Medals for Little Leaguersand drive people who are unable to reach the 17.75-mile mark and the 20-mile mark in a bus to the baggage claim area.  No one who fails to reach these cutoff times is allowed to cross the finish line.  The Marine Corps treats its runners with honor and fairness.  As long as a runner beats the cutoffs, he or she is treated with as much respect as the man or woman who wins the overall race.  Unlike the Rock n Roll marathon, the Marine Corps does not treat non-finishers like Little Leaguers who deserve the same medals and treatment as bona-fide finishers.

In retrospect, I cannot keep this medal.  I did not cheat.  The course organizers cheated me and they cheated all of the folks who ran the marathon without missing the 23rd mile or without hitching a ride for part of the race.  And while I completed my 9th marathon on March 17th, I want nothing to do with a race that lacks honor and respect for all of its participants.

Epilogue: I officially alerted the Rock and Roll authorities that my chip time is inaccurate due to their unannounced altering (and shortening) of Saturday’s DC Marathon course. I still ran a complete marathon by doubling back and adding mileage after I crossed the line. Now I am looking into contacting the press and the USATF to file a grievance re course infractions.

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How to Talk to a Friend in Need

A dear friend contacted me this morning with a question.  A problem really.  He read my blog on rendering assistance to strangers or friends who are suicidal on social media and he got confused and made a mess of things with someone he loves dearly.  And he needed me to explain how to fix it.  In short, his wife got upset during an argument and she confessed that when they fought, it made her want to hurt herself.

            A word about my friend.  Let’s call him Gary.  I’ve known him since my undergraduate days and he is a good guy.  He is a scientist and if you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, he possesses the classic scientist’s personality: INTJ.  Which is to say that Gary reminds me of Spock.  He is logical.  And he is a good man.  Smart, funny and loyal.  But Gary is not sensitive and he is not subtle.

            Gary heard his wife, “Joan” utter the words, “I want to hurt myself” and he immediately thought of what I wrote about suicidal threats.  He assumed she was suicidal.  So he asked her, “Does that mean I need to call the police?”  Needless to say (and I am chuckling now because Gary and Joan hugged it out tonight), this wasn’t the best response.

What do you say to someone like Joan in this sort of situation?  Most of all, you listen to what Joan has to say.  Sit down beside her.  Ask if she needs a hug.  Remain calm and try not to overreact.  Joan may just need to vent.  She trusts you enough to tell you she is in pain.  Whatever you do, do not abuse this trust by blaming her for feeling depressed.  Give her the gift of time and be patient with her.  Be honest with her but remember that she cannot process too much right now, so keep it simple.

After she tells you what is wrong, thank her for talking with you.  That may sound odd, but it took a lot for her to reveal her vulnerabilities to you, and she won’t feel as guilty or scared if she isn’t worried about how you will react.  A simple “thank you” will help ground her and let her know that you do not resent her or think that she is weak.

Tell her you love her and you are concerned about her.  If you can, sit with her for a while.  I know you must be busy (we all are busy) but time is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone you love.  Ask her if she is okay.  If she asks you if she is going to be okay, promise her that you will always be there for her, and if you believe she will be okay, tell her.  Never lie, but I for one appreciate reassuring words.

Finally, remember that you must take care of yourself as well.  Give as much as you can to Joan, but realize when you are over matched.  If she avers that she is feeling suicidal, ask her to call her therapist or her psychologist.  If Joan is suicidal, please do not leave her alone.  None of us are an island right?  There is a time when you must act as a bridge.  If you cannot help Joan, please do not hesitate to help her call a professional, a suicide hotline or offer to drive her to the hospital.  You are doing God’s work.  Know this.

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