The Deathless Death

Last week I shared with you my health scare. Luckily, the ultrasound found normal blood flow. There is one thing that still needs to be checked, but it was not nearly as bad as I feared. You see, one of my aunts had dementia, and since experiencing that, it has become one of my worst case scenarios and greatest fears.

Dementia is a ninja. Whether you call it specifically Alzheimer’s or more generally dementia, it is a ninja. It can be early onset, starting as early as your 40s or 50s, or it can wait until your 60s, 70s, or later. It starts out with just the occasional mental lapse here or there and—as a woman—it’s difficult to tell if it’s dementia or just the memory loss that comes with menopause. But if you have dementia in your family, every time you “lose” a word, or go blank on your PIN at the grocery store checkout, you panic and ask, “Is this it? Is it starting?”

I was in the military, so I wasn’t around my family of origin on a regular basis. When I got out and moved back home, I noticed that my aunt would repeat things. I attributed it to the fact that she lived in a small town, didn’t get out much, and had to recycle stuff in order to sustain a conversation. Besides, with two children in elementary school, I kinda had my hands full.

I stayed at home for a little over two years, and then we moved to Germany. I rarely spoke with that aunt, but I spoke with her oldest sister, Kathryn, fairly regularly. Aunt Kay started saying that Mable (my aunt with dementia) was under “stress.”  I could accept that: Mable’s daughter had died a year or so before, so … yes, stress. Mable had led a pretty sheltered life and now there she was, suddenly all alone, and without the daughter around whom her life had revolved for almost fifty years. From time to time Aunt Kaye would relate stories of Mable’s odd behavior, but having no previous experience with dementia, I made no connection. And Aunt Kaye never uttered the “D” or “A” word.

Then, in April of 2005, I got the call we all dread: I needed to come home because my eldest aunt was failing. Even though I was two days out of the hospital after a two-week stay, I was Frankfurt Airport-bound in less than 48 hours. When I arrived at the ICU of our local hospital, twenty minutes ahead of schedule, I was absolutely horrified to find Aunt Kaye (the eldest aunt) a mere shadow of her former self. Once so tall, confident, and strong, I was greeted by a weak, skeletal figure who weakly reached her skeletal arms out to me when I entered the room. A significant emotional event after a 16-hour Transatlantic trip and a six-hour time shift, I went home and went to bed.

The first time I saw Mable was the next day. She seemed like her old self. Then she said something a little odd, but she came back pretty quickly. But, the more time I spent with her, the more I noticed that something just wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but…

That’s when my cousin Patty just laid it all out. Mable had been diagnosed with dementia. She told us (my two sisters were there, too) about the nightmare Mable’s life had become. The most disturbing, to me, was that Mable had become nocturnal, and on more than one occasion had been found by the police wandering around. When asked what she was doing, she said she was looking for her daughter. Sometimes they would take her back home, yet at other times to the ER.

After Aunt Kaye passed, I had to go about the business of tying up loose ends so I could get back to Germany. We made an appointment to discuss Mable’s situation with her doctor, who turned out to be a condescending, uncaring sack of excrement who was more focused on putting us “uppity negroes” in our place than intelligently discussing Mable’s situation. When we went to see the attorney about taking care of Aunt Kaye’s estate, we tried to get a Power of Attorney for Mable, but the attorney refused to do it, even though Mable was there, was lucid, and agreed to it.

Aunt Kaye had lived in the family homestead with her youngest sister, Bettye, who is deaf. The reasonable solution was to move Mable back to the homestead with Bettye. But neither of them were having any of that. Bettye said she was afraid of Mable’s volatility, and Mable decided we were evil and plotting against her.

I had come home prepared to say goodbye to one aunt. I ended up saying goodbye to two. Mable was no longer there.  I thought I would be attending one funeral; it ended up being a double.

I don’t recall now exactly when Mable finally went into care, but I think it was 2005. I came back to the States early in 2006, but to El Paso, Texas, so I didn’t go home.  My cousin who had been visiting her at the nursing home died in 2009, so I had no real word of Mable after that. Someone sent me a picture of her in the nursing home: she was lying limply in a bed, her hair disheveled, her t-shirt rolled up under her breasts, exposing her stomach. She could have been dead or alive. However, in my mind that was no longer Mable. Her periods of lucidity had long since become more the rare exception than the norm, and she had retreated to her childhood. Very rarely, a little of Mable would peep out, but it was so rare and so brief that it would have been better if it had not.  Those brief moments just reminded us of what we had lost. It was a knife to my heart because I still believe that the “May-May” I had so adored as a child was still in there, imprisoned by this evil disease, but trying desperately to let someone know, “Hey! I’m still in here!”

One day in 2011, I received a call from the nursing home while I was in baggage claim at the Huntsville, Alabama, airport. In 2009, I had called the nursing home and told them they needed to transfer Patty’s role to me when I found out she was dying of cancer. They told me that Patty would have to come in and relinquish her role. I told them she was a little busy dying at the moment and probably wouldn’t be able to fit that into her schedule. I gave them my contact information and decided to let them figure it out for themselves. So, in late 2011, they finally did.

I didn’t recognize the number, but I recognized the area code. In a very matter-of-fact way, the woman on the other end of the line informed me she was calling to get authorization to do a hospice consult for Mable. You see, one of the things they don’t tell you about dementia is that not only does it steal your essence and your life memories, it steals every learned behavior. Mable had long since lost her ability to hold up her head and feed herself; by the time I got that call, she had forgotten how to eat and swallow. She was dehydrated and emaciated. But a hospice consult? Over two years of nothing and suddenly we need a hospice consult? No, I did not handle it well.

I received that call in early November. After a number of conversations with my sisters, we decided against the hospice consult. I decided I was going to go home for Thanksgiving to see Mable and say my last good-bye, even though she had died to me back in 2005. Exactly one week before I was going to head to home, the nursing home called me and told me she had passed. They asked me what I wanted them to do. My sisters and I decided to have our cousin, who is a mortician, retrieve her body and cremate her. We talked about a memorial service, but that never happened.

My daughter and I went home at Thanksgiving anyway, and I went by the nursing home to retrieve Mable’s things. The nursing home staff was very kind. They had an orderly roll out less than a dozen boxes the size of copier paper boxes to my car and load them in. I drove them back to the house, took them in and opened them up. There were very few of her personal items left. Most of it was clothes they had provided her as she wasted away—things she never would have voluntarily worn. Eighty-six years of living reduced to less than a dozen boxes because dementia is a ruthless thief.

To this day, no one has retrieved her cremains. They are with a family member, so I know they are safe and will not be abused. But, the bottom line: I feel no connection to those cremains. “Mable” died the deathless death of dementia long before her body gave up the fight.

The Ticking Time Bomb

Hi, friends. I know it’s been a while since you heard from me. But … life. . But I’m feeling stronger, and I hope this will be the beginning of a long relationship.

I had my periodic appointment with my Primary Care Provider (PCP) at the Veterans’ Administration, and it went wonderfully.   Even my prostate appears to be in good shape (do not ask me why they run PSAs on women…).  I’m feelin’ good!!!!

A couple of months ago I started having a new sensation in my right shoulder; like the joint was separating . True to form, I waited around a while, hoping it might just go away. When it did not, I went to see my civilian PCP, who is also an orthopedist.  He decided it might be a tear in my rotator cuff, and that I probably need an MRI, but insurance being what it is, we had to start with an x-ray. So he sent me down the hall for some x-rays.

I didn’t hear back from his office after a few days, so I assumed the x-rays showed nothing worthy of note, which is what I expected.  Then, last week – about 2 weeks after my appointment – I got a call from the doctor’s office.  They had been trying to reach me about my x-rays.  Ruh-roh…

First of all, the x-rays (for my shoulder, recall) showed a stiffening of my spine, “most likely caused by muscle spasms.” Do tell! I have 10% service-connected disability for that. As an afterthought, I was also told that the x-ray showed mild arthritis in my right shoulder.

The majority of the phone conversation, however, centered around the plaque build up in my carotid artery. The nurse recommended an ultrasound. At first I was tempted to blow it off:  my first “cardiac episode” about three years ago, had found plaque in my arteries, but the cardiologist had mentioned it in an off-hand manner.  When I saw him in February, he declared me healthy and graduated me from six-month visits to annual visits. I was just about to pass on the ultrasound, but decided a second opinion never hurts.

The internet is a both a wonderful and evil place. It can give you just enough information to scare the bejeezoobs out of you.  And that is what it did. I already knew, from high school science class, that the carotid artery is pretty significant.  I knew from my cardiologist that plaque in an artery weakens the wall of the artery and can cause it to “blow out.” But what I found on the internet was far more chilling.  Apparently, I have what is called Carotid Artery Disease. The build up of plaque there can significantly reduce the blood flow to the brain, causing dementia, or the plaque can break off, go to the brain and cause a stroke. Or, the wall of my carotid cause just cave under the pressure of the plaque and I could bleed out.

So now, not only am I at risk for heart attack based on my family history, me of the historically low blood pressure, am now at risk of a stroke or bleeding out via an erupted carotid.

I had my ultrasound on Tuesday, so now there is the wait for the results, and most likely a visit to a cardiologist. Meanwhile, I’m walking around carrying this possibly deadly secret. Do I continue to go about my life as if I do not know this?  Do I sit quietly on my sofa munching on carrots, drinking distilled water, and double-dosing my pravastatin and low-dose aspirin because I stopped taking them … how long ago?  Perhaps I should just start chugging olive oil: after all the Greeks swear by its ability to support longevity. Do I finally fill out all those beneficiary-type forms that are suddenly missing from my personnel file – you know, just in case? Do I finally fill out that living will form the VA has been giving  me for the past four years and have it notarized? Do I cruise on over to Legal Zoom and do that will I’ve been thinking I need to do for so long and never quite seem to remember when I’m at home doing nothing of value? Do I laugh because I am still alive, or cry that soon I may not be? Maybe I should start attending Mass again on a regular basis…

I’ve been well aware of my mortality since I reached my 40s, because both of my parents died at 49.  On the one hand, I see every year I live past that as a sort of “bonus round.” But then my sister died suddenly of a heart attack at age 56, so – at 53 – I now have an additional hurdle to cross before I consider myself “out of the woods.”  Never mind that my oldest sister will be 64 on Saturday and appears to be in perfectly good health. In my mind, she could well be the anomaly, like my father’s youngest sister, who  celebrated her 88th birthday on Monday (and by the way she ate when I was there earlier this year. shows no signs of imminent decline). None of her siblings or either of her parents lived to see 88.  I may very well be like her, as the “baby” of my family, but my mind won’t let me go there.  In my mind, there is this ticking time bomb inside of me, toying with me; knowing exactly the day and the hour when it will detonate. And no matter how nicely I talk to it, or how much I pray about it, it will never reveal its plan to me.

And so, I will continue to kiss my children every night, and tell them I love them, in case I slip away in the night like so many of my loved ones before me.

Tick … tock … tick … tock. …

Getting Real

First of all, I’d like to apologize to those of you who decided to follow me trusting I would provide you a relatively steady diet of food for thought. In this I have failed all of us.

It has been a while since I shared my thoughts with you, and even longer since I shared my life. But, well, sometimes things happen that push us to do that which we are loathe to do.

I know that some who know me will not agree with what I am about to do, because you will consider it a commission of one of the deadliest of sins: the airing of one’s dirty laundry. I don’t see it that way. Regardless of outward appearances, I long ago came to the conclusion that my most likely mission in life is to be a warning to others: the quintessential “Ms. Don’t Bee.”  I have accepted – and even embraced – this as my lot in life.

You see, I have a son. I have a troubled son. And the only thing that keeps me from being 100% angry at myself right now is that he is adopted, and I did not birth him into this screwed up world that has no use for him past making itself feel better at his expense.

I could give you a lot of reasons for his being “troubled.” I could – and most likely would, were it not for my therapist – tell you that my son is troubled because I failed to be SuperMom. But the fact of the matter is that my son – my adopted son – was probably doomed from the start. He is the biological offspring of a veteran of the first Gulf War. He is the product of a toxic gestational environment: a  toxic environment created by the United States government. However, because of his demographic profile, it’s just easier to “Blame it on the Boogie.”  Because we all know that adopted babies are throw-aways, and African American adopted babies are the worst throw-aways of all. By definition, they have to be drug babies. Imperfect people. A drag on society. Pariahs.

It became apparent fairly early on that all was not right with Quen. He simply would not settle in. He was fussy and needy and had a persistent case of thrush and endless ear infections. And then the seizures started. And after the seizures, the medication to control the seizures turned him into an entirely different child.

I could recount all of our troubles in painstaking detail, but that would do no good. Suffice it to say that his toxic gestational environment has significantly impacted his central nervous system: a fact that the Veterans’ Administration refuses to acknowledge, my pretty expensive healthcare insurance refuses to address (or authorize treatment for), and the penal and mental health systems refuse to pursue. I can only commend them on their freedom to choose.

I could tell you, like I tell myself several times each hour of every single day, that Quen’s problems are my fault. I failed to be an adequate mother and advocate. But, realistically, no matter how hard and often I try to convince him that he should go right, I cannot over-ride his lying, damaged central nervous system telling him every minute of every hour of every day that he really does want to go left. And that liar has finally won out.

As I write this, my baby is sitting in the El Paso, TX County Jail. It’s not the first time he’s been there, but I fully intend for it to be his last. On November 12, 2013 he was sentenced to 30 days for evading arrest/detention. That’s it. And the worse part of it: he was arrested a full three days after he had been released from the same jail for other offenses.

I won’t post the copy of the the complaint here, because it’s not my place to disclose his private information. But I can tell you that the arresting officer claimed  he chased my son through a number of yards and over a number of fences because, while he was in search of an armed robbery suspect, he saw my son jay walk. Yup. My son ran across a street, outside of a designated pedestrian crosswalk, and that prompted a law enforcement officer to abandon his search for an aggravated armed robbery suspect to draw both his fire arm and his taser on my 5’9″, 150lb. son. Nothing but the Grace of God prevented that asshole from killing my boy.  And you know what the kicker is??? The only charge my son faced was evading arrest. You would think RoboCop would have at least had the presence of mind to write him up for jaywalking. And you would think the judge would have had sufficient presence of mind to question the entire situation. But no. Because, you see, ever since the people of America had the unmitigated gall to elect a black man as president, the national war on Black Men that had been previously partially underground went  all the way live. And since that fateful night in 2008, every person with brown skin has been made to pay the price in one way or another. And I, for one, am sick to death of it. Because, you see, if all of these ill-read, ill-bred buttheads had any awareness of the true history of this country which they so adamantly claim as their exclusive dominion, they would realize that the primary reason these United State of America is anything other than a barren wasteland is due solely to the exploitation of peoples of color. Europeans, inarguably, stole the land from the initial inhabitants, and then used the stolen and uncompensated labor of other people of color to improve that land. In fact, our current tenuous economic status continues to rely heavily on the  exploited labor of less-than-fully-documented people of color.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not racist by nature. I am, in fact, probably one of the whitest black people you will ever meet … with the possible exception of my children. But when I read that my child had a police officer’s weapon and taser drawn on him because he jay walked  over 1,700 miles away from me, I – as a 40% disabled veteran – have no choice but to ask WTF???!!! Where is the thanks for my service, or  – for that matter – his sacrifice? Where is the dignity that is implicitly guaranteed him as a U.S. citizen  as a part of his inalienable rights of  “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness?” And, as long as I’m ranting, where is the logic in a Texas Hispanic law enforcement officer, whose ancestors have suffered centuries of indignities and discrimination, acting in the same, despicable manner … which I can only see as an excuse for those oppressors to further justify their past and continuing transgressions? I fail to comprehend how a country that vehemently declares itself to be a Christian nation consistently fails so miserable to adhere to one of the most basic and simplistic teachings of Jesus Christ, that being “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”  While I have never been a large champion of the whole “turn the other cheek” mentality, I do believe that those of us in this country who have been subject to generational oppression have an obligation to – when afforded the opportunity – prove that “we are better than that.”  In my mind, when we find ourselves in  positions of power and opt to act with vengeance vice integrity, we only reinforce the wrong-minded mindset of our former oppressors that we were deserving of the treatment to which our ancestors were subjected.

Hopefully, my son will be on his way out of El Paso soon. Hopefully, he will realize that no good will come to him there; that the people he calls “friends” are not, and that them being Hispanic in a majority Hispanic town give them an advantage over him that not even true friendship could counterbalance.  I want him far away from there, where he can find some measure of self-respect and self-worth. Where he can escape the vicious cycle of hopelessness and helplessness in which he now lives. I want him to be able to hold his head high, knowing that he is a responsible, productive member of society, who has been endowed by his Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I want him to understand that he, too, has a right to claim the American Dream, because his American-ness has been bought and paid for several times over with the blood, sweat, and tears of his ancestors and is not something that others can deny him or that he should thoughtlessly relinquish.

To Hell in a Handbasket

In less than 24 hours, our country could enter into a very serious situation. In addition to a partial federal government shutdown that is having far-reaching effects across the economy; by this time tomorrow our government may no longer have the authority to borrow money to meet its daily financial obligations. And all the while, Congressional Republicans are acting like a bunch of over-grown Frat Boys, drunk not on cheap beer, but on power. Very much like a recalcitrant child, they have stuck a macramé pin in the wings of our government and are content to sit back and watch it squirm. Oh, and sing “Amazing Grace.”  Really? Nero fiddled; the Republican Caucus sang. You’d think, seeing how well the Nero thing turned out, they’d think twice. But nooooo… true to form, the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

I would be an entirely different story if their arguments had any basis in truth. In true Lee Atwater style, they have framed a fiscal debate around the stereotype of blacks being fiscally irresponsible. And in true Republican style, the Base is eating it up. The fact of the matter is that most appropriations bills originate in the House of Representatives – in which Republicans have held the majority since the Great Shellacking of 2010. So, one could easily argue that the Republicans hold – at the very least – a large share of responsibility for this country’s current bills.  The raising of the Debt Ceiling does not authorize any additional spending. It allows the government the ability to take out short-term loans in order to meet daily obligations, as required by the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA). In this way, government spending actually does work very much like a household budget and checking account. Every household has certain monthly obligations. And a functional household ensures monthly expenditures do not exceed monthly income.  Sound financial theory. But how many of us have been faced with an unexpected expenditure – like a flat tire – and ended up having to replace two tires … like now? In our personal budgets, we have some flexibility. We can dip into our emergency fund, we can pay for the tires with a credit card, we can use our overdraft protection.  The only problem with that: because of the ADA, none of these options are available to the federal government. If you have two flat tires and there is not sufficient money on your Car Maintenance budget line on that day, you would not be able to buy the tires, period.  You couldn’t dip into your savings, or use your credit card, or dip into your discretionary fund. No calling up BankofMomandDad. So, while the government may forecast that they will have a certain amount of money on any given budget line on any given day, the money has to be on the correct budget line at just the right time or that obligation cannot be met.

 And then we have the other exacerbating factor:  a budget is based on forecasted receipts. Well, let’s just look at where the government stands right now. Income tax is a major source of funds for the government. But, because of the federal government shut-down, some 800,000 government employees are not receiving their regular pay, so are being taxed based not on their regular pay, but on their earned pay. Do you see where this is going?

But to me, what is most sad is how ill-conceived and short-sighted the Republican shut-down strategy is. They allege that this is all about saving the American people from the evils of the Affordable Care Act.  Okay, so let’s just say – for argument’s sake – that the ACA is Evil Incarnate and must be destroyed. Had the Republicans thought this thing through, they would have cleared the decks: passed a Continuing Resolution, raised the Debt Ceiling, and allowed all business to continue as usual. That would have left the headlines free to chronicle the daily debacles of the ACA roll-out. But, instead of being inundated with stories about software glitches, crashing websites,  under-trained and under-staffed Assistance Centers, and endless wait times on toll-free lines, we have … the House Republicans singing all three verses of Amazing Grace without the words written down!

“God bless America. And no one else.”

We Now Interrupt the Government Shutdown…

Since the blogosphere is filled with talk of the government shutdown, I don’t feel compelled to join the chorus. People who know me should not be surprised by this. Instead, I’d like to talk about something interesting I heard last night.

Okay, so I’m on my way home from my belly dance/flamenco night, listening – as usual – to NPR, when up came this very interesting story about our new Miss America,  Nina Davuluri (a little lengthy, but well worth a listen). No, I’m not a former or aspiring pageant girl. Sure, growing up in an all-female household, I watched all the pageants, but as a young child I never saw this as something that was possible for me, and as I got older, I failed to see the point. I still wish they would go back to the tank-style swimsuits, since it doesn’t appear that non-value-added segment of the competition will ever go away. But this year’s pageant has captured the attention of a lot of people – including me – because it wasn’t just a parade of vaselined-toothed, overly-coiffed “beauties” talking about world peace and the distribution of maps worldwide: it was about the very ugly reaction to the winner…and what that, in a larger context, means.

I did a little research on the pageant. The first Miss America pageant was held in 1921. Minus the 4 year hiatus from 1928 – 1932, we’ve had 88 years worth of Miss Americas. Of those, eight have been African American, with the first one, Vanessa Williams, being selected in 1984, fourteen years after the first African American contestant in 1970. Ms. Davuluri is only the second Asian American, along with Angela Perez Baraquio, in 2000. Rule Number Seven actually prohibited the participants of non-whites during the early years of the pageant. Into the 40s, contestants actually had to complete an ancestry questionnaire.  Clearly, this is no bellweather organization. As Nina pointed out in this interview, Miss America has always been about “the girl next door.” And, based on the reaction to her selection, it appears a fair number of people prefer to live next door to a caucasian, even a tattooed one.

I hesitate to say much more on the topic, as I feel I would become “preachy.” Instead, I invite you to listen to this piece and respond. What does the reaction to her selection really say about the state of our country in 2013? Is it simply “business as usual” in America that every minority has to have its turn in the discrimination barrel? Will this push us forward, or has it pulled us back? Is it an indicator or a manifestation?

Some say race is a social construct, and has no basis in reality. But for those have dealt and continue to deal with the kind of behavior displayed recently, it is very, very real. And – at least for me – it has become really, really tiresome.

The Scary Guy

It’s been over a week since Aaron Alexis committed mass murder at the Navy Yard in D.C. Writing on this last week may have been more timely, but it seemed too soon to me. I wanted to see how it played out: how I felt and how the media handled the situation. Because this time it was a young black man on the wrong side of a gun.

Okay. So, now that you’ve gotten over your righteous indignation regarding that last statement, allow me to share my insights.

Preliminary reports characterized Alexis as – basically – a gun-loving ne’er do well. With at least 3 known encounters with law enforcement and a military career ended by a “pattern of misconduct,” he was simply a bad apple from the word “go.” How did he ever get into the military? How did he ever get a security clearance? How did he ever gain access to a military installation? These were the urgent questions asked by many a stern-faced commentator endlessly over several news cycles. And the more they these questions, and the more information they obtained, the less newsworthy it all became. Because, you see: Aaron Alexis, in the final analysis, was no odd-colored, misshapened, warted, one-horned devil. Aaron Alexis was an untreated, mentally ill veteran.

What we found out was that, yes, he had some run-ins with law enforcement over the years, but (1) they never resulted in convictions; (2) they were geographically dispersed; and (3) in at least one case, the situation was minimized. He had some indebtedness, not unlike many Americans in this tough economic times.  He completed the majority of his enlistment and received an honorable discharge. The early rumor about a “pattern of misconduct” has been largely discounted, as he opted for a voluntary early separation; not uncommon during periods of force reduction. Might there have been a “pattern of misconduct?” Possibly. My guess (based on 14 years in the Navy), is that Alexis was a fairly consistent minor disciplinary problem. A bit of a pain in the butt, perhaps a bit odd, but sufficiently functional to get the job done without major interruption. The decision for him to separate early was most likely mutual: it prevented him from getting an adverse mark on his record and saved the command quite a bit of paperwork. Everybody wins, right? Wrong. Twelve people lost big time last Monday.

In the name of Monday morning quarterbacking, the Navy is reviewing its base security policies. The process of investigating, adjudicating, and granting security clearances is being scrutinized. The military is concentrating on these things because they are things easily fixed. They can make new rules, institute new policies and procedures, provide more training (like we don’t have more than enough already). Fingers of blame can be pointed and wagged and guilty heads can be hung. But all the directives, instructions, regulations, pamphlets, circulars, DVDs, training curricula, and sermons will not change the fact that on September 16, 2013, 13 people lost their lives because we – as a nation – refuse to address mental illness on a serious level.

I’m not sure I understand it. Obesity is now a disease. Alcoholism is a disease. Sure, these are serious conditions: conditions that kill people. But mental illness is just as much of a disease, and kills as many … or more. And yet, we – as a society – continue to ignore the elephant in the room. Because mental illness is messy. And mental illness is scary. Because, in most cases, mental illness doesn’t roar, rage, or ravage: it creeps in and almost imperceptibly consumes what was.

Someone once told me that one will not change until it hurts too much to remain the same. How many more people must die at the hands of the mentally ill before we stand up and say “Enough!” ? How long will we go on looking the other way because that “crazy” guy, that “scary” guy, looks so much like us…and just might be us?

Because that’s really the issue, isn’t it?

 

 

They’re People, Too

As fascinating as being in a “real war-torn country” was to a small-town girl like me, what was most memorable about my time in Kosovo was the people. During my time there, I got to spend a lot of time with the locals, as they provided a large number of services on the base. The people I spent the most time with were My Ladies; the women on the cleaning crew. These women ranged from probably late teens into maybe their 40s or 50s. They earned – let’s just leave it at – “far less than minimum wage,” worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, and had absolute no benefits, including sick days. To say it was bitterly cold there would be an understatement, and few of them had more than sweatshirts, sweaters, or fairly thin jackets. I noticed these things immediately but had been told they would be stand-offish, since KBR had them afraid of their own shadows. All an American had to do was accuse them of doing something wrong and they were immediately fired. Unfortunately, some Americans took advantage of this latitude.

I presented a particular problem for them as I was one of the very few female “chefs” (chiefs – I ran the Training Support Center), and the men were actually the heads of the cleaning crew. I remember the women coming in meekly to ask me if I could step out of the office so the men could mop, since they did not want to be in the office with me and risk offending me. I would step outside and pass the time with a smoke break, as they were extremely quick, again, not to risk annoying me.

It was finally one of the women who broke the ice. They would come in and mumble a few pleasantries, but nothing more. One particularly cold day, one of the ladies summoned the courage to ask if she could have the last bit of coffee left in the pot. I told her “Sure!” (and nodded vigorously so she would not think I was yelling at her). This happened a few more times; I soon noticed that the women would take turns asking for the coffee. They didn’t get to my office until after lunch, and since I only drank coffee in the morning, it was a little old. Eventually, I convinced them that it really was best if they just made a fresh pot. This eventually turned into what I came to refer to as My Ladies’ Afternoon Tea Time: I went to the Exchange and laid in a supply of tea bags, cream, sugar, cups, and the like. I had the guys who worked for me move in a “conference table” and some chairs. Gradually, it became a daily ritual that – after they finished cleaning up the hut our facility was housed in – they would come, sit around the table and sip tea. Sometimes they would include me in their conversation, sometimes I’d just sit back and enjoy watching them. They would sit there and talk and giggle like a bunch of school girls. Many of them had lost everything to the Serbs, including family members, but they were resilient. They would tell me who left treats for them and who did not: there was one office that would always leave ice cream sandwiches in their freezer and that was even a bigger treat than hot tea on a cold day. If one of them seemed to have a cold they just couldn’t shake, I would sneak them some cough medicine or cold tablets (they were ordered to take nothing from us; also grounds for firing). One woman had a cut that became terribly infected, so I brought her some antibiotic cream and band-aids. I managed to “find” some nondescript jackets lying around that I asked they “take away.” When I was packing up my office to leave, I seemed to run out of boxes, and was “forced” to leave several things: window curtains that had been admired, a vacuum that I had bought so they could clean the rug I had put in my office of which “Mama” had grown particularly fond.  The fact of the matter is, during those months, I became genuinely fond of these people. When I found that I was being rotated out, I laid in a supply of tea things and arranged for the one guy I could trust to continue the tradition. My husband ended up getting a job there a few months later, and for the time he was there, I would remind him to make sure my ladies had their things.

They were simple people. They were people who had been stomped on by life and had every reason to be bitter, dejected, mean, and vindictive. We had come in to be their saviors and instead, we had allowed KBR to come in and suck them into slavery with obscenely low wages and poor working conditions. I still think about them from time to time, and wonder how they have gotten on. I wonder if our being there was – in the end – a net gain or loss for them.

I don’t want to see the same thing happen in Syria. If we feel the need to take action, that action needs to be limited in both scope and duration. While we still view ourselves as Saviors of the World, the fact is that most others do not. We need to be mindful of that and govern ourselves accordingly.

Because, after all … they are people, too.

The Cleaning Crew at Camp Bondsteel

The Cleaning Crew at Camp Bondsteel

 

To Syria, or not to Syria? That is the question…

As I watch with detached interest over the extended hand-wringing over what to do about Syria, I can’t help but think of Kosovo.

Just a little less than 11 years ago, I ended up in Kosovo through a string of rather odd events. Without going into boring detail, suffice it to say one day I was living in relative comfort in Germany, and the next I was scurrying out in sub-zero temperature in the wee hours the morning to … well, wee.

For those unfamiliar with the Kosovo War, here’s a little background information. This will give you a lot of the political background, but what’s important to remember that we, along with our NATO allies, went into Kosovo in 1999 to intervene in an ongoing civil war (sounding familiar yet?).

By the time I got to Camp Bondsteel in late 2002, although we were ramping down our activities there (with an eye toward moving on Iraq), it didn’t appear we had done much “delivering.”  Camp Bondsteel, then referred to as the biggest city in Kosovo, was run completely on oil generators. That’s because – more than four years after victory had been declared – the Kosovars got no more than four hours of electricity a day. No one knew when those four hours would come, of if they would come in one big chunk or in smaller chunks of anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. This made it extremely difficult to live anything resembling a normal life, or at least what we know as normal. Legend had it that some contractor had been paid several million dollars to stand back up the electrical grid but the money had long since vanished with no functioning grid to replace it and it appeared no one was making a great effort to locate either.

And so, the Kosovars went about their daily business, hurriedly cooking dinner and doing other electric-centric activities whenever the opportunity presented itself.  Yes, some Kosovars, no doubt, had gas or oil generators as well, but as the U.S. Army was the largest employer in the area, the number of folks who could afford fuel were few in number. You see, the U.S. and U.N hired no Serbians (for obvious reasons), and at least KBR only hired one person per family/household. There were relatively few established businesses left; because of roads were in such bad repair and the weather so dismal, the largest cottage industry was the pressure washer car wash. It was nothing to see cars abandoned alongside the road; the locals would drive their cars until they ran out of gas, then return when they came up with enough money to refuel. I don’t recall seeing anything other than desolate hoop-ties there during my six-month tour, though I do recall pulling up beside a rather interesting homemade vehicle. Years of hardship had made these people nothing if not resourceful. I purchased three beautiful area rugs by flashlight that I still have and treasure to this day. I can only say luck was on my side.

I don’t necessarily get into the politics of these types of things, because I find the people far more interesting. However, even as not-much-of-a-student-of-history, even I can see the pattern Kosovo represents: with the exception of the Allied areas of Europe, pretty much every country we’ve gone in to “deliver” we’ve left them in the same or worse shape than we found them: Vietnam, the Philippines, Iraq, Somalia, Grenada, Afghanistan… you name it. So now we want to go into Syria to do … more of the same?

One could be encouraged that some members of Congress are pushing for a clear strategy, both in terms of engagement and exit. I am dubious of this, as I clearly remember the question being asked “How much will reconstruction in Iraq cost?” and the answer being “Nothing. They have significant oil reserves to fund their own reconstruction.”  And how many billions of dollars later is it still a barren wasteland, with untold volumes of antiquities lost for the ages (in some looters’ basements and vaults, no doubt)?

There is a part of me that tells me something must be done to help these people. However, I’m not at all convinced we are the ones to do it. Staring down the barrel of a 25% Reduction in Force in the Department of Defense over the next four years, and seeing what a war-weary force we have after a decade of war that yielded – at best – a net of zero, I can’t help but think that we may need to sit this one out. Let someone else handle it. Maybe this time we need to think about saving ourselves first. This might well be the first time in history when we aren’t in a position to help, or simply the first time we realize it. Either way, I hope our leadership will take a look a long look at history before making a final decision, or they we will be destined to repeat it.

And here, for your viewing pleasure, is an unclassified aerial photo of Camp Bondsteel, the largest city in Kosovo. Think about it.

Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo

Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo

Next week: Memories of the People of Kosovo

Grist for the Military Justice Mill

I’m a veteran. I don’t discuss it much, because – at least in this sector – I take my grandmother’s sage advice of saying nothing if I can’t say anything nice.  Let’s just leave that lie for now.

As a veteran, and a current Department of Defense (DoD) civilian employee, I continue to watch the goings on of the uniformed contingent with great interest. And of late, this flurry of very public Military Justice proceedings has captured my attention.

First, we have SPC Bradley Manning. Accused of – and admitted to – leaking thousands of pages of classified documents to WikiLeaks. As a defense, he has wrapped himself in the flag and said he was driven to do what he did because he is a “true patriot.”  Sounds good, but  – as someone who has had a security clearance and access for years – I can assure you the official military position on this type of behavior is “Damn Patriotism. Do not divulge. And if you are considering it, let us share with you how painful it may be for you.” So Manning’s characterization of himself as a being driven by a “Higher Power” and “Patriotic Altruism” just don’t wash with me. You see, one thing that has become abundantly clear to me over the past 25+ years is that the military is black and white. They don’t do well with gray. You either did it or you didn’t, and if you admit (or they decide) you did it, no one is really interested in  the “but…” of the matter.  So Manning is looking at 35 years on quasi-active duty (minus pay and benefits) with  the possibility of reprieve sometime around the 7 to 10 year mark, depending on which source you believe.

Then we have SSG  Robert Bales. After a bit of prodding, he  admitted to massacring 16 Afghanis for no apparent reason. In the name of expediency, we’ll overlook the part about him disobeying a lawful order by leaving the base and going into the village in the middle of the night to commit the dastardly deed. In exchange for an admission of guilt, he was awarded a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  Needless to say, the Afghanis are not pleased. But, hey: it’s not like he killed Americans or anything, right?

Which brings us to – in my mind – the most puzzling case: Major Nidal Hasan.  On Friday, MAJ Hasan – after four years of senseless reindeer games – was found guilty of the murder of 13 American soldiers and the injuring of more than 30 in his shooting rampage at Fort Hood, TX in 2009.  The guilty verdict came as no surprise, as Hasan admitted  he committed the acts  (like he had to with all the witnesses and video footage), followed by the rather weak “but…” of it was his intention to prevent American soldiers from killing the designated enemy du jour.  Very soon we will know whether he, too, will receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole or the ultimate penalty: death.  I am anxious to see how this one plays out: essentially, MAJ Hasan, too, freely admitted guilt. Will his killing of 13 Americans warrant a tougher sentence than Bales’ killing of 13 Afghanis? If so, how will this be received in the international arena?

As disturbing as all of this is, I find something much more disturbing. I was on active duty from 1986  through 1999, and the one thing that has puzzled me above all else is how much the military has changed. When I enlisted, if a Chief Petty Officer said it, it was law. End of discussion. By the time I made Chief — a mere 10 years later – I had E3’s asking me “Why?”

As a civilian, I’ve sat in General Officer Staff Calls where the GO asked the same question week after week and never got an answer. There was no colorful language, nothing was thrown. Somewhere along the way, our military had evolved into an all volunteer force, all the time. Good order and discipline have become outdated concepts.

The Post 9/11 military is sadder still. In an effort to feed the ever-hungry faux war machine, quality control in recruiting and retention went the way of the dodo. I saw people promoted and assigned to positions of leadership they wouldn’t have come within a country mile of during peace-time. I have witnessed recalcitrant, undisciplined, and unruly enlisted troops given chance after chance: folks who – under other circumstances – would never had made it through MEPS, much less into the active force.  So when I look at the likes of Manning, Bales, and Hasan, I can only lay so much blame at their feet: I hold much more responsible a system that was so intent on feeding the Faux Wars with an virtual endless supply of bullet-catchers, and Do-People it lost sight of the bigger picture.

Clearly, Bradley/Chelsea Manning should have been screened out prior to ever raising his/her right hand to take the enlistment oath.

Robert Bales had a rather unstable history prior to his enlistment, including involvement in some dubious real estate dealings and accusations of parting unassuming senior citizens from their hard-earned  nest eggs.  He continued to have troubles after he enlisted.  And as for Hasan:  regardless of a number of adverse evaluations and personnel record entries, he was retained on active duty – and even promoted – because “at least he could help with some of the patient load.” Here we have a deeply troubled man, surrounded every day by mental health professionals and not one of them connected any of the dots. Why? Because they were all too busy feeding the Faux War Machine.

Luckily, President Obama finally put his foot down and called a halt to this on-going exercise in futility. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and I’m not sure how long it will take the military to dig itself out of this very deep hole.

But as these cases  play themselves out, I will be watching. Watching to see how much of the responsibility the military establishment so drills into its members it will be willing to take onto itself. Will the cases of Manning, Bales, and Hasan be adjudicated fairly and logically? Will the DoD stand up, take responsibility for it’s role in this and take positive steps to rectify the situation? Will these be viewed as individual, isolated incidents so that we free ourselves to delve into the quagmire that Syria is destined to become?

We shall see.

Heart of the Matter

After my sister’s death in May, I promised to devote this space to a discussion of the factors that contributed to her death. While I have to a limited extent, I have found that the words just will not come. I don’t know if it’s because I’m still in denial (while the facts are irrefutable, it still hasn’t sunk in) or if my grief is just causing me to have writer’s block. So, the most I can offer you at this time is my word to keep up the awareness on important health issues facing women, and particularly women of color.

The very most important thing we can do is realize we are responsible for our own health, and we need to make it a priority. As important as all the things we have to do on any given day for ourselves, our family, and others may seem, the best way to ensure we’ll be able to continue to do them is to remain healthy … and alive. Don’t make the mistake of thinking “It can’t happen to me.”  Heart attack is no respecter of class, gender, race, ethnicity, or age. Best to err on the side of caution and think, “It could happen to me if I don’t take care of myself.” That’s not to say that you should swathe yourself in bubble wrap and sit quietly on your sofa munching carrots and celery. Just remain aware and be proactive.

Be informed. There is a wealth of information right at your fingertips, free for the taking. The American Heart Association has a wealth of information on cardiac health. Go Red for Women has a wealth of information specifically related to cardiac disease in women. WomenHeart is a lesser known, but valuable resource, as is Heart Healthy Women.

Try to lead a balanced existence. Yes, exercise is important, but 30 minutes a day is generally regarded as at least a good starting point. Unless you are planning to enter a triathlon, there is no need to train as though you are. Find something you enjoy, as you’ll be more likely to continue to do it. Don’t underestimate the value of the at-home exercise routine, especially if you’re just starting out.  Try to get outside for at least 10 -20 minutes a day. Not only will the fresh air do you good, the sunshine (even on overcast days) can help stave off depression.  Communing with nature can also be a good stress reliever.  Watch your nutrition, but don’t go overboard. If you deny yourself those yummy french fries too long, you will end up gorging yourself.  Remember the 80/20 rule: eat healthy 80% of the time, and allow yourself some leeway 20% of the time. Take time to enjoy yourself. I know that may sound a little crazy, but in re-evaluating my situation, I found that I wasn’t doing much of that. By the time I finished all the things I had to do, I was so mentally and emotionally drained, all I did was sit on the sofa and vegetate. It’s been a difficult habit to break, but I notice a big difference in my outlook and attitude when I take the time to make myself happy. It doesn’t have to be anything big: a few hours spent wandering around Barnes and Noble is a real treat for me. Take up a new hobby. Pick back up and old one.

Pace yourself. A major lifestyle overhaul can be daunting and fraught with frustration and failure. Try the “Change One Thing” approach: identify one fitness and one nutritional goal and incorporate them into your life. When you feel you have mastered one goal, set a new one. These goals don’t have to be major: maybe you can resolve to park further away from the entrance of anywhere you go. Or – a big one for me – drinking more water.  Small successes lead to big gains!

We, as women, spend so much time selecting just the right shade of blush, or lipstick or foundation; in choosing the perfect shoe or coordinating the ultimate outfit. Now is the time to check our priorities and put our health first; like our life depends on it. Because it does.