Lynn’s TEDx Emory Talk – April 20, 2013

I have had mental health issues for most of my life and have been “in therapy” for 30 years. I checked myself into three different mental institutions between 2000 and 2010. In those 30 years, I heard a lot of things that sounded like answers—“you suffer from depression,” “you suffer from anxiety,” “you suffer from mood swings,” and “you suffer from fragile self-esteem.” I was also advised that I was a traveler through the “Dark Night of the Soul.” That at least sounded dramatic.

On the technical side, the confusion was equally great. In 2008, when I was an inpatient at an institution in Baltimore, the experts diagnosed me with non-specific bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder and binge eating disorder. One and a half years later, at an institution here in Atlanta, my attending physician diagnosed me with bipolar II disorder, not to be confused with non-specific bipolar. To round things out, two months later I was accepted into a clinical trial for people with treatment resistant depression.garson_tedx

I didn’t care what the label was, I just wanted the pain to stop. The worst was when I got to the point in 2008 that I used to have to lie down on the floor of my office just to try to breathe. Then I would get up and close another deal. I am not kidding, I was a health care transactional lawyer and I closed two deals on December 31, 2007, when I could barely eat, sleep or breathe. At that time I was struggling with extreme anxiety, not just depression. I checked myself into the institution in Baltimore for 10 weeks the following summer and again in Atlanta for a week in the winter of 2010. In the Atlanta institution I saw an elderly woman try to stab a 25 year old guy with a fork for messing with her lunch tray, the idea of somebody being on “suicide watch” became commonplace, and as for me, I was told by the medical director that I would never work again and to go ahead and apply for social security disability. I did, but I didn’t like the idea, so I kept looking for a job. By August of 2010 I had a job as a contract lawyer and by June 2011 I got my current job as a lawyer in the health care team at a large Atlanta law firm. So I guess the doctor was wrong.

The other side of my treatment over the past 30 years is the medication side. I have been on 28 different psych meds, alone and in combinations of up to 4 at a time, over the past 30 years. Now I am on none.

Well, what about you? Why should you care? When I hear that 20% of the US population will suffer from depression in a given year, it makes me think that you ought to care. Because if is not you, it is your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your child, your friend. And that’s just depression. Throw in anxiety, bipolar, ADHD, OCD and the rest of the spectrum and it’s hard to imagine that anyone is untouched by mental health issues.

So given that a huge percentage of us are affected, the question is, what are we as a society doing about it? The answer, not just in my opinion but more importantly, in my experience, is almost nothing. The perceptions about and reactions to mental health issues are off base in so many ways that it is hard to know where to start. Let’s start with the three biggest issues I see:
• Silence
• Ignorance
• Stigma
The first two will go away when we deal with the last one, so I’ll just mention them briefly.

On the topic of silence, I have been looking for the conversation about mental health every day since Newtown. It’s not there. Even the couple of initiatives that are out there, like the bill for the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 and the proposal in the recent federal budget to allocate $235,000,000 to mental health have received almost no attention. Who in here has heard anything about either one of them? The silence is deafening.

I have experienced silence on a personal level. My issues of depression go as far back as 16 years old and my eating disorder goes back to at least 7 years old, probably younger. When I asked to see a psychiatrist as a teenager, I was told that we didn’t air our dirty laundry in public. After college, my father quietly slipped me a piece of paper with a psychiatrist’s name on it. We never talked about it again. I spent 30 years largely dealing with my problems by myself, which is the main reason that I am so open about it now. The secrecy nearly killed me, and it has got to stop.

Another thing that has got to stop is ignorance. There is plenty of information out there about mental health. I recommend the website for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I will tell you flat out, if anyone is not educated about mental health in this day and age, it is not because they can’t find out, it is because they don’t want to know. The reason for that, by and large, is that if they don’t learn about it, then they can usually do a pretty good job at pretending that it doesn’t exist. The question is, “What is so bad about having a mental disorder that the people closest to you need to pretend that it doesn’t exist?”

So we get to the topic of stigma. Mental health issues are stigmatized for the same reason that anything is stigmatized: because people are afraid of the unknown, they are attracted to the norm and there is a cost and a burden to it, both financial and emotional.

I have been giving thought to the idea that part of the reason we carry around so much prejudice against mental health issues is buried in the language that we use. Let me give you an example:

My daughter Jean is living in South Korea. With everything going on with North Korea, I have been worried about her, and so have a lot of my friends. They have called me to ask what I think, whether she should leave, and how I am dealing with this. My instinctive, off the cuff, roll of the tongue without thinking, answer has been:

It’s driving me crazy
I’m going insane
I’m hysterical
It’s making me nuts and
I am losing my mind

At a certain point, I stepped back and listened to myself, and I thought Wow, that’s pretty amazing if you think about it. Me, using all those pejorative terms about myself. Me, of all people, the person who has fought so hard to get stable, to balance out her mind, to get back to a more rational place. How could these things possibly come out of my mouth, and so casually? Of course it’s habit, it’s unthinking, and almost any of you would have said the same things. The point is, I don’t really mean it, right? Of course not. So does it really matter? The answer is I am not 100% sure, but I have a sneaking hunch that it does. It’s easier to see when you look at how those phrases are routinely applied to somebody else, not yourself. What do we tend to say if we disagree strongly with someone’s politics? Let’s take the current debate on gun control, either side. How many times have you said or thought any of the following about the other side: “That’s crazy, he’s a raving lunatic, she is seriously disturbed, they need to be institutionalized, that’s insane, they are all total maniacs,” “they need to have their heads examined.”

Do you get my drift? What it says to me is that the attitude of marginalizing mental health is so deeply buried in our lexicon that it’s our language of choice to express any kind of deep disagreement or personal discomfort.

Let’s assume I am right and this needs to be changed. Like I said, it’s a deeply ingrained habit to use these words, so there is going to be great resistance to change. Let me point out a very recent example of a similar change that has come off without a hitch. I have a son who is almost 25 whom I remember vividly about ten years ago using the phrase “that’s so gay” all the time. I mean all the time. Has anyone in here ever heard that phrase? Raise your hand. …. Let me ask you something. Do you hear anyone use that phrase now? Ever? Raise your hand if you do. …. I didn’t think so.

Why not? You know why not. Because everybody had a brother or a sister or a cousin or a friend or a Facebook friend of a friend who was gay, and they knew that it hurt them, that it made them feel sneered at and made fun of, and so they quit saying it. And that phrase just went away in a puff of smoke.
So think about it the next time you say “He’s driving me crazy” or “You must be out of your mind.” “You’re a jerk” works just as well, and it’s what you really mean anyway.

If we can understand this, then I think we will be on our way to making our understanding of mental health issues intrinsic and personal, and that is a big piece of the solution.

I think changing our vocabulary is a great idea, but it is subtle and will not solve the whole problem of stigma. To me, where we really need to make some progress is stigma in the workplace. Most people spend the bulk of their lives trying to get a job, get a promotion, get a client, get a patient, get a customer and, more importantly, to keep them.

How do you do that if you are struggling with depression or other problems? When I interviewed for my current job in 2011, I was scared to death. I did not remotely consider telling the attorneys I talked to that I had been in a mental institution the previous year. I got the job, and during that first year, I worked hard to do a good job and to show that I was competent and reliable. At the same time, I was finishing my book and then going through the editing process. I was ready to publish right around my one year anniversary, so I took the book and marched into the office of every person in my department, about 14 people, and told each one that I had written a book about my journey into, through and out of depression and anxiety and that the name that anybody was going to see on the front cover was going to be the same name that was on the bottom of every email that I sent out to our clients. I asked each one if they had a problem with that. To a person, they said no, and at least two-thirds of them came to my first book reading, including the head of my department.

Why did I get that kind of response? Principally because by that time they knew that I was a good lawyer, they knew I was dependable. In other words, it was personal. But it was also because I am lucky, I have generally been able to work no matter how bad my depression was. That’s not true of everyone, and we are actually losing people because of it. I was at a meeting on Tuesday about suicide prevention for lawyers. My profession has a suicide rate 6 times the national average. I think much of the reason is what I said—you are afraid you’ll be punished for coming out in the open, so you keep your problems secret and you don’t get the help you need. And there is also the idea that you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that if you can’t do that, you are not a deserving member of society and you should be kicked to the curb anyway. Let me tell you something about “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” I used to have a chapter in my book called “Pull Yourself up by Your Own Damn Bootstraps.” It got combined with another chapter and I lost the title, but here’s part of what it says:

“About two weeks into the program at the institution in Atlanta, it occurred to me that it might be useful to give my psychiatrist a list of my daily physical symptoms to help with my treatment. In less than three minutes I jotted down on the back of an envelope what came immediately to mind: trouble drawing a deep breath, shoulders hunched and tight, bones popping in my neck, twitching, aching jaw from clenching my teeth, trouble falling asleep, waking up three to four times a night, hot and cold, shaking violently, particularly in the hours after waking up, blurred and grainy vision, chattering teeth, trouble writing by hand, constantly losing my balance, nearly falling asleep while driving, tightness in my chest, feeling like my blood was sizzling, sudden high blood pressure, inability to concentrate, panicked, racing thoughts from the minute I woke up until the minute I fell asleep, feelings of extreme despair, disoriented, some self-harm thoughts, severe memory loss, losing access to words and spelling, being extremely irritable, no longer driving automatically but having to think myself through it every time I turned the wheel, braked, or speeded up, and lyrics from songs looping around and around and around in my head.
These were merely the symptoms that popped into my head without having to think about it, so an end to all of that didn’t seem too unpalatable.”

So, no, pulling myself up by my bootstraps was not an option. It took me a long time and a lot of effort and a lot help to get better, but I did. And if I could do it, anybody can. Just give them a chance and give them a hand and give them comfort that they will not lose you as a parent or a child or a friend or a spouse or a partner or a client or a patient or a boss. If that seems like a lot to ask, remember one thing—the odds are pretty good that you will be on the receiving end of that goodwill at some point in your life.

Thank you.

Posted in Mental Health - Commentary and Recovery, Uncategorized

Oops

I wrote a post sometime around March 22, 2013 and posted it, feeling good about my stinging rhetoric advocating against a particular group with whose position I disagree.  A week later, I decided on stigma about mental health as my topic for a speech at Emory University’s April 20, 2013 TedX conference. As I was thinking about the topic, it occurred to me that part of the problem is how common derogatory terms related to mental illness are in our vocabulary: “it drove me crazy,” “that’s nuts,” “what a psycho,” and “he/she is a lunatic.” My thoughts flashed back to my blog post, which had the word “lunatic” in the title, no less, and I thought, “gotcha” (or, technically, got me).  As I re-read the entire post, I was dismayed and then horrified by the words that I had chosen. Because I deeply disagree with some people in this country and challenge their point of view, I called them “lunatics,” “insane,” “crazy” and “dangerous.” That’s wrong.  Period. We have other words for expressing disagreement and we (I) need to use them instead.

For about ten days, I left the post up in its original form to remind myself that for all that I view myself as a mental health advocate, I am just as guilty as the average person when it comes to the words that pop out, particularly when I am angry or upset. After a while, I was flat out too embarrassed to leave the post up, but before I deleted it, I took one more look at the words I had used. In addition to  “lunatics,” “insane,” “crazy” and “dangerous,” I found “paranoid,” “maniacal” and “pathological.” I got the message, and I hope that others will too.  There will not be an end to stigma about mental health problems in this country as long as these kinds of  words are on the tip of our tongues the minute our filter is off.

Our words and our perceptions are one continuous loop. I say, “he’s a jerk,” I hear my words and I make the decision that my target is a jerk. The next time I see that person, I think, “what a jerk” and the cycle continues unbroken. Anybody who has any interest in removing the stigma surrounding mental health needs to start breaking that cycle by cleaning up their language. Me first.

 

 

Posted in Mental Health - Commentary and Recovery

The Cat Cafe

You have not lived until you have been to a cat café.  I visited one in Seoul in February 2013, on a trip to Korea to visit my daughter, who was teaching English there.  While the concept originated in Taiwan in the late 90’s, it expanded to Japan and became hugely popular there.  Reportedly (translation: “the internet says”), a cat café is scheduled to open in London in the spring of 2013.  Until then, I can say from personal experience that Korea is holding the line with great enthusiasm.

Cat Cafe

What you might experience at a cat café:  cats everywhere, kittens, Siamese, Persian, tuxedo, mixed, smushed faces, pointed faces, one hairless cat in a cage, cats running frolicking, sleeping, eating, performing their toilette, sitting on your table while you have coffee, gathering around you if you have a bowl of cat food to feed them and cats generally just being adorable beyond belief.  All of the young Korean women take selfies with the cats faces right next to theirs.  (If you don’t know what a selfie is, watch what any girl anywhere in the world between the ages of 10 and 30 does with a camera—model poses with the camera held at arms length, endlessly snapping shots, how could the digital age not have gone there?)  I don’t have a picture of anyone snapping a selfie in the cat café, but thankfully I do have one from the dog café in Busan (second largest city in South Korea):

Dog Cafe

The cat café in Seoul is $8 per person and you get a cup of coffee or tea or a scoop of ice cream and all the time you want with the cats.  There was only a hint of odor, far less than the dog café in Busan, and the cats were very clean, except the greeter neglected to give us a plastic bag as we came in and a cat started to pee on my daughter’s coat.  The staff cleaned her coat and gave us a bag and all was well.  We played with the cats for well over an hour; it was so much fun. A Korean girl next to us gave my daughter part of a bowl of cat food and all the cats came running to be fed.

It’s so nice to be in a place where nobody freaks out about the liability issues and you can do some unusual things that might be a tiny bit risky.  Everything seemed to go just fine, even when a family came in with their young children.  The cats have claws and there was the occasional hiss between some of the younger ones, but there were no major incidents involving animals or humans. We in the U.S. could learn a thing or two. It’s not that Korea is not patriarchal, it is, in many ways far more so than the U.S.  Just not litigious to a fault.  Until that changes, if you are a cat lover, or just like to see curious things, the next time you are abroad, check for a cat café at your destination.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

And They Say There Are No Good Men Left…

If you can’t find me one day, I may be far back in the mountains, having been so fortunate as to have been “chosen” by the internet suitor whose self-description is below. As far as chasing squirrels naked through the forest only on the full moon, hard to say. I did do that Indian thing on the mountaintop, after all.

As penned by the eloquent hand of Mr. X:

My Self Summary

I’m following my dream of making a sanctuary for animals , people and endangered Medicinal plants. Trying to get self sufficient , and make a simple life with no drama, or stress . Born and raised in California , came to get away from the city life in these beautiful mountains of West North Carolina. Anybody that is in touch with the earth, with a sense of reality, and who you are, and yes native peoples , And all that have , a problem with this system of whats going on,…. self sufficient , , its just for me , my animals and the one I choose. Dont’t want anybody that has’nt figured out who , they are , don’t need anybody that has emotional things going on, just want some one at peace within them selfs, looking for that energy that want s to give it back and forth. .. If that makes since…..That i may be so far back in the mountains that i will never be found. Kind of a bummer in some respects , but i like it that way. A no drama world, and please keep you r pharmasuticals out of here, and do you know of “bob dylan” Must respect ones self, and have high self esteem. and for dam sure respect your self. Please , i do not want any more responces from any one that is not at least ” 40″ please, its just to much , of an energy wast/

On a typical Friday night I am

chasing squirrels naked thru the forest only on the full moon , and practicing catch and release. Haa!!

You should message me if

only if there is an interest. and you know of the changes that come our way. self sufficient, and have common grounds. and at least a 75% match ./ Oh and forgot , is easy going but can work up a lather. Haa!! and close enough to be a real thing, No couch spuds need apply. sorry but if you , are up set with that , call either 1-800 -waa or the local spca. Haa!! see ya. and you are in actuall driving distance , of an hour.OR sooo oh and have at least a 75 % match or more . So many people , and so needy, creator , guide them, to the right places. Im looking for a woman that is younger ,in mind ,body ,spirit ,and energy ,not necessarly in age…. and , i am going to Check out of this electronic date thing , and go from there, cause the machine only works when there is electric flow , and it may be a big ” power out for a long time or more, and please don’t ask . i just know.

Posted in Dating as a 50+ Year Old

Wife for a Day

My life is the most unusual thing.  I spent four days last week being married again and raising my kids in the old family home.   I had gone for a quick one day visit to see my sixteen year old daughter, who lives with her father in Virginia, and thought I would save money and stay at my ex-husband’s house (the same house we all lived in together).   He and I get along well enough for that; we were, after all, friends for eight years before we dated and then married.

There was a sudden death in the family, the beloved husband of my ex-mother-in-law, a stellar person whom my kids adored as if he’d been their blood grandpa from birth instead of a late-in-life addition to the family.  I’m a big believer in funerals, so I stayed three more nights and left right after the funeral.  My son came down from Washington, D.C. and all we were missing to be one big happy family again was my daughter who is living in South Korea teaching English.  We had plenty of conversations with her on FaceTime, passing the phone around (“Hold On, Here’s Mom;” a little while later, “O.K., here’s Dad”), and from the outside you never would have known that this little family was asunder.

I was surrounded by loving people, woke up in a house every day that contained other people who cared about me.  And like a steak taken out of the freezer to thaw, I began to soften, to interact, where before I was a solitary thing, speaking when spoken to but not initiating much.  It’s the trap that waits for an introvert who gets divorced, falling out of the habit of easy discourse, falling back into oneself instead of projecting out into the world.

I came back home to Atlanta with only my dog and cat waiting to keep me company, and I felt the shift deeply, from many back to one, from a surfeit of warmth back home to my lonely apartment.  My therapist has spent a great deal of time hammering into me the difference between being lonely and being alone, but I am not sure it ever took.  I am an introvert who loves people, who struggles to put myself out there so I can be loved.  I realized after the trip that I have stopped pushing myself to reach out, that I have given it up in favor of what feels comfortable.  I don’t like being alone, but neither do I like driving by myself to events peopled with lonely souls like myself who are looking to “meet up” and end their loneliness.  It seems too forced, too obvious, and my affinity has always been to life’s subtleties.

I have no immediate answer for this one.  I suppose I’ll bestir myself when I get sick enough of being on my own.  But I did enjoy being married again for a while.

Posted in Divorce

New Book Excerpt: It’s Only Pain

I have started a new book!  Exciting, yes, but also frustrating. I don’t have the time or the reservoir of anger that fueled Southern Vapors.  I suppose not being so angry is a good thing, but I miss the burn.  That said, there is still one teeny tiny topic that  elevates my blood pressure in a nanosecond.  If I can find the time to write about it, I think the burn will be there.  So here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

Grace started to weep. “I can’t do this.” “I can’t hear it, I can’t think about the fact that your life is over.” “Yes you can,” says Danae. “It’s only pain.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean, it’s only pain?” Unlike Danae, Grace’s face had always been expressive, and the distress she was feeling was written in every line of her drawn brow, in the twist of her mouth and in the darkness of her eyes. Danae flicked cigarette ash into her wilted salad, buying time. She knew that even with her closest friend, the one who knew almost everything, there was only so much she could expect her to understand. “Sorry, that’s the way I think, not you.” Since she had first read it in a self-help book in her thirties, Danae had adopted the expression as her mantra. Others may have lived by “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” but for Danae it was “When life gives you pain, make it your companion.”

Posted in New Projects and Writing Endeavors

Divorce, Suzy Marmalade Style: Part II

One stumbling block for me all along with my divorce was jealousy of my ex-husband, that he “got” my two disaffected children in the divorce instead of me, as if they were a lamp or a sofa.  This time, it was my therapist not my friends, who pounded right thinking into my head.  “It is not a competition,” she said, over and over, and finally, I got it.  Looking back it seems laughable and more than a little sad that I ever looked at it that way, but I did.  Before the divorce, I knew that there was more than enough love to go around, but caught in the maelstrom of my own pain, I forgot it for a while.  Now I know it again.

I guess the only good thing I did during the whole process was that I did not speak ill of my ex-husband to the kids. On occasion it was hard to refrain, but I was able to discipline myself, until now we are friends again and I no longer have the desire. I have heard so many people say that all they care about is the children and will do whatever it takes to make sure the children are okay and always put them first no matter what, and then turn around and completely eviscerate the other parent, in the flesh or in absentia, in front of the kids.  I think it is a blind spot; they truly don’t realize what they are doing because they feel so justified in the feelings they are having.  Alert: It does not matter if you only say it on Sundays, before visitation, or only when you are really mad, or only when you feel really justified and you are ABSOLUTELY right and he is ABSOLUTELY wrong.  It doesn’t matter if he talks trash about you, so you should be able to defend yourself.  No, ixnay, never, not once, period. If you mean to do the best by your children, then live by that and complain about your ex to your parents, your therapist, your hairdresser, your friends and anyone else who will listen, but not to your children.

There.  I feel better.  Divorce is a hard topic, and I don’t much like talking about it.  Those were the worst of times, but they are over now and that’s the best I can say to anyone who is going through it.  It will be over, life will move on and grace will return to your life, as it has to mine.

Posted in Uncategorized

Divorce, Suzy Marmalade Style: Part I

I have been scheduled to write an article about divorce for a long time and for a long time I have studiously avoided it. It’s a painful topic for me. But what better time than the aftermath of the holiday season to man up and take the plunge?

My views on divorce are different from the sentiments I usually hear expressed, be it at ground level from my divorcing friends or in the media. That’s probably because my case was atypical in that I took on the role usually occupied by the man. I left my ex-husband. He kept the house. Since we had recently moved to his hometown, most of our friends had been his friends first and largely aligned with him, even the people I counted among my intimates. I became alienated from two of my three children. I felt marginalized. My behavior became unstable, ranging from angry to supplicating and all points in between, while my ex-husband preserved a stable home for the kids. I yelled, screamed, begged, pleaded, cried, talked, wailed, demanded and commanded my children to be there for me in the way that I needed them to. In the face of my overwhelming neediness, my children, quite properly, couldn’t. I tanked. Completely.

Then the real trouble began. I had two children who didn’t want to be around me much, and yet I was expected to pay substantial amounts of money to ensure that their lives were comfy and cozy, for private schools and gas money, car insurance and clothes and iTunes downloads and cell phones and walking around cash. You know, the bare necessities of life. All of this was to be done willingly, without question and with good cheer.

Did I resent it? Of course I did, I resented the hell out of it. On the one hand, I felt like I was being treated like crap and on the other hand I was supposed to just shut up and fork over the dough. I started to think that maybe I had discovered the answer to something that had always mystified me: how did all of those great dads turn into rotten, absentee, sullen non-parents, seemingly overnight? I have a pretty good guess. Like me, they felt like they were being viewed as an ATM machine and nothing more, and it did not sit well.

What was my reaction? For a long time I wanted to walk away from my kids. I was so hurt and in so much pain, if I couldn’t make them come back to me, then I wanted to leave them like I thought they had left me. I wanted to withhold the money. If they were going to withhold any form of positive regard for me, then I wanted to withhold the only thing I had left that mattered to them—money.

I didn’t do it. For the sole reason that I had three or four very good friends who literally sat on top of me and said DON’T DO IT. They said, “No matter what your children do or say to you, leave the door open. Tell them that no matter what, your home is always their home and you will always love them and be there for them. And above all, do not withhold money. They will equate that with withholding love. Do not do it.”

I had wise friends. They were one hundred percent right and at some level I knew it, even if I didn’t want to hear it. I did what they said, kicking and screaming all the way. I had to follow the AA principle “fake it til you make it,” because with such deep feelings of abandonment, what I really wanted to do was lash out, to hurt my children back, to punish them for what I perceived as injuries so grievous as to be mortal wounds.

Because I did not give in to the impulse to strike back, I have my children again. I did a lot of damage to the relationships with my neediness and my instability, but that is past now, and my children have learned a valuable lesson in watching me come back to health from the dark places. I got lucky; my children came back to me relatively quickly. If they hadn’t, I would be writing a different piece, with a lot of talk about patience and the long view…

Posted in Divorce, The Rejected Parent in a Divorce

On The Subject of Too Much Cheer

On a topic completely unrelated to mental health but high on the list of heartburn producing activities in our culture: Can people please stop using exclamation points in every other sentence? Especially in a business context, this is ridiculous.

You don’t need to soften me up with a squeaky cheery, “Hope you had a great weekend!!” I know it’s Monday and you know it’s Monday and we both know that Monday generally sucks after the weekend. So please get down to business and tell me what you want, period. It’s business, not the Cub Scouts.

We all do it now because it’s expected and we feel like ogres if we don’t inject that bit of good cheer into the other person’s day. Newsflash: the excessive use of exclamation points does not produce endorphins on either the giving or the receiving end.

Is anyone else on board with this? In the new year, let’s try to use a few less exclamation points and be a little more genuine.

Posted in Further Adventures of Suzy Marmalade

The Disappointed Expectations of Baby Boomers

I used to think that I was unbearably unique. No one understood me because there was no one like me; I was a rara avis of the first order. Later I came to understand that I was the quintessential Baby Boomer, in fact a little behind the curve, so that by the time I thought it felt it, ate it, smoked it, drank it or wrote about it, most of my generation had either already done the same or was right there with me.

So when I wrote my first book, Southern Vapors, I was the only one surprised to hear that one of the deepest chords of resonance was what I wrote about the disappointed expectations of the Baby Boomers. A typical passage:

In 1998, we moved back to Atlanta. It was there that the coup de grâce to my lifestyle was administered by the internet stock boom. I bought what was being sold, hook, line and sinker. The new era bullshit fed right into my desire to be as wealthy as my parents, not tomorrow but yesterday. I had waited long enough on the fringes; I don’t think anything could have stopped me from investing in those soaring stocks. Like most people, I had enough success to get intoxicated and stay that way until getting sober was no longer a possibility, not voluntarily and not until it was way too late.

And like many people who participated in that particular market frenzy, the bloodletting for me was severe, about a 70% loss. Not too long thereafter I proceeded to get divorced, and the subsequent descent to my personal financial bottom was swift and merciless. I seriously contemplated what I would do when all of the money was gone, and whether my daughter, Rachel, could realistically be expected to come stay with me in a trailer during the weeks that I had custody. It never came to that, but by June of 2010, I was living in a tiny apartment with a washer/dryer room in the parking lot and gaping cracks around the doors and windows through which the frigid wind blew in winter. I was jobless, not by design, and close to being broke. I was not cool with this by any means, but I was trying to tolerate the idea that I was put here to learn something and that this was part of the lesson. Who knows, maybe I was going to make a career out of teaching formerly rich people how to be poor with grace.

When I talk to people in my age bracket about the book, they tell me how strongly they relate to this description of what it feels like to watch your life tank unexpectedly. It seems that many of us feel that we got screwed. Along with baby formula, we were bottle-fed a dream that had no chance at all of becoming reality, yet for many of us, it wasn’t just our expectation of reality, it was immutable fact. Is it laughable to look back and understand that many of us felt entitled to a problem-free future? Yes. Does that make our false sense that the world owed us certain things any less real? No.

I thought that my life was going to be like an airplane flight: takeoff, a few bumps on the ascent and smooth sailing once I hit cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. Even air pockets were not part of the flight plan, and my idea of bumps consisted mostly of getting grades on tests that were lower than what I thought they should be. I know people who died along the way because they shared my mindset, which is a mindset that does not produce any effective coping skill to deal with life’s problems. If there aren’t going to be any problems, who needs coping skills? For my part, I reached adulthood with not one healthy coping skill. My saving grace was that I made a lot of friends who were willing to listen to my problems and give me a level of support that kept me in the game until I could build my own infrastructure. For many years, I was an impressive house of cards.

Is it then about blaming our forebears for inculcating us with propaganda cloaked in shirtwaist dresses? (If you are a woman, think Donna Reed and June Cleaver. Guys can substitute Danny Thomas and Ward Cleaver.) Is it about hanging on to regret over how our lives could have been different if we’d only been taught how to distinguish shit from Shinola? It could be if we want to make it that. I myself spent multiple decades making it that, and it did not improve my lot one whit or make me feel better in any way. Two things made me feel better. One, the awareness that really bad stuff could happen to me, which took away fear of being blindsided, and two, slowly, painfully, brick by brick, adding to my storehouse of knowledge on what to do when the really bad stuff happens.

Where does a person go to take Life 101 as an adult? I visited three different mental institutions between 2000 and 2010 and I learned a lot at every juncture: on the way there, during my time inside and on the way back. That’s a pretty extreme path. Most people can probably make do with some combination of connection to community, counseling and spiritual practice. Each of those categories is purposely broad. Community can be anything from family and friends to a twelve step program and everything in between. Counseling can be anything from the kinds of experiences I had in hospitals to a few sessions with a therapist. Spiritual practice is whatever works for you. For my part, knowing that I’m not the only one is very cheering, so I have gladly traded in my perceived uniqueness for a seat in the row next to the rest of you… and in that spirit of camaraderie, I wish you all happy holidays.

Posted in Baby Boomers - Loss of the American Dream