#shatterthetaboo: Time to Talk About Mental Health & Opioid Addiction

The following is a guest post written by my dear friend & colleague Morgan. We’ve shared a lot this year: a classroom, ideas for several creative projects, and the grief of losing a family member.

Morgan lost her brother in February from a Fentanyl overdose. In an effort to #shatterthetaboo around mental health and opioid addiction, here are the words Morgan penned about her family’s experience as well as a video of the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial:

On February 9th, 2017, my 27-year old brother Jamie died from a Fentanyl overdose.

Jamie struggled with mental health for the last 10 years of his life and he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

At some point, he became an opioid user. Opioid addiction is often deadly because you need more and more to feel high each time. Eventually, he started to use heroin.

We assume that when he died, he thought he was using heroin, but he was in fact using Fentanyl. It is 100x more potent than morphine, and 50x more potent than heroin. When you die from Fentanyl, there is very little chance of resuscitation. You die almost immediately. It looks almost identical to heroin.

Jamie was an advocate for his mental health struggles for a long time. He wanted to champion his diseases; he did not shy away from telling people about them. However, he never divulged to us his battle with addiction. Being that addiction is a family disease, we were in complete denial and couldn’t see the truth right in front of our faces.

Perhaps if the stigma didn’t exist so heavily around addiction, he would have come to us. Maybe he would still be alive.

After his death, many friends have come to us with similar stories of mental health and addiction struggles. In the light of the opioid crisis, it has never been more important to shatter the taboo. To see just how bad the crisis is, take a look at these graphs: https://goo.gl/SgsfMo

As I said in my eulogy, “If you are struggling, if your family member or your friend is struggling, tell someone. Reach out. Ask how can I help. Suggest resources, share experiences. Just show up. If you know someone who is clearly an addict, speak up. Tell their mother or their siblings. Tell their friends. Tell someone.”

I miss my brother with every breath that I take.

We can not let this continue to happen. We have to #shatterthetaboo and build a community of people who help each other through this crisis.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, the resources below may be of some help to you:

https://www.nami.org/
https://www.ncadd.org/
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help

You can also reach out to local health providers, as laws are changing daily in regards to opioid treatment, prescriptions for suboxone, and safe injection sites.

You don’t have to go through this alone.

Click below to see Morgan’s powerful eulogy:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fmorgxw%2Fvideos%2F10200768661038567%2F&show_text=0&width=560

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We Are What We’ve Been Waiting For

img_0997As I went to bed late Tuesday evening, realizing that Donald Trump would actually become the next president of the United States and no, this wasn’t some horrendous nightmare from which I would magically wake in the morning, I thought to myself, how on Earth am I going to get up and explain this to the children I teach? My students, who are mainly low-income minorities (many of the Muslim faith), have expressed their deep concerns and fear about a Trump presidency throughout the last year. While they expressed the fear of being targeted on the street and the fear of having family members deported, I continually reassured them that they had nothing to worry about. There is no way anyone who talks like that would ever be elected president, I had said to them, sometimes while wiping up their actual tears.

There is, in fact, a way that someone who talks like that could be elected president and that way is white privilege. My own white privilege blinded my ability to see that a Trump presidency was not only plausible, but also highly likely. In hindsight, I see how I should’ve taken his campaign much more seriously and actively spoken out much earlier.

img_1004So, when I woke up on Wednesday morning with deep dread in my heart, I asked myself: what kind of person would I want to see today, on this day after the election? Someone who’s trying to fight back tears or someone who is optimistic and unafraid to face the brutal reality of what’s to come? I opted for the latter option.

I didn’t want my students to feel any worse than they already did and as kids absorb the feelings of their environments, I wanted to them to absorb feelings of hope. As they entered the classroom, I played uplifting music including my favorite Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds.” I did this not to trivialize their feelings, but to provide the hope that some how, some way every little thing would be all right.

We had our students write in their journals and their responses moved us to tears. Why do people hate me, one child asked? I guess slavery never really ended, another one wrote. We talked about how the biggest demographic that supported Trump was white people without a college degree. Several of them laughed out loud as if I just given the punch line of a joke. Good thing we’re in school and going to college, they said.

As the day progressed, our kids said they were starting to feel a little better. After much discussion, one girl mentioned that she simply wasn’t going to let someone like Donald Trump get her down. Another found solace in the knowledge that checks and balances will make it challenging for some of Trump’s proposed policies to become law.

img_1003I guess you could say this day was like any other day at school; we were just teachers guiding our students through the world’s uncertainties. Except on that first day post-election and all the days going forward, our work together feels  more immediate because we are on the brink of a presidency that legitimizes hatred. Who’s going to speak out against this hatred if not us? No one. Who’s going to teach our children how to stand up against the injustices they will absolutely face if not us? No one. Who’s going to help our children navigate through these times so that they can do better when they’re grown if not us? No one. As President Obama said when he was a senator campaigning for office, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,” and I’ve never felt that more than now.

The evidence that a Trump presidency will legitimize hatred already surrounds us. As outgoing Senate Minorty Leader Harry Reid stated, “The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.” Already the media have cited examples of Trump supporters harassing women and minorities in the days following the election. On Wednesday, two Babson College fraternity brothers drove to Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater and all-women’s college, and waved a Trump flag around campus while allegedly harassing and yelling racial slurs at students. On Friday, a Baylor University student said a student walked into her while she was walking on campus and then called her the n-word all in the name of making America great again. England has seen a similar backlash since Brexit with a reported increase in racial crimes.

Or how about the fact that Vice-President Elect Mike Pence has a bigoted track record? Our future Vice-President signed a bill in Indiana that said businesses could refuse service to gays and lesbians based on religious reasons, required that all aborted fetuses have burials or be cremated, advocated for the teaching of creationism in schools, and also advocated for the use of public funds for conversion-therapy, which is an anti-gay therapy that seeks to change one’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. This man, who also thinks smoking doesn’t kill, will be governing our country.

Is this real life?

The sad truth is that this is real life and it has been for quite some time. But now, I will no longer stay silent.

I’m reminded of the poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller , “First they came…” in regards to the Nazis rise to power in Germany and the lack of a response from German intellectuals. It feels applicable in these times:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 
img_0999Going forward, I urge you to show up and speak up. Yesterday, I attended a love rally in Washington Square Park and marched with hundreds of others to Union Square in support of Black Lives Matter, the planet, gay marriage, Muslims, a woman’s right to choose what’s right for her body, and refugees. Walking up 6th Avenue, my heart raced several times when I saw cheers from onlookers and honks from supporters in their cars. I was reminded that there are still so many people in this world who believe that diversity is what truly makes America great.

If there’s a silver lining to be found in this election, it’s that now I feel a camaraderie amongst strangers where I haven’t before. I’ve seen and engaged in conversation with strangers at the bodega and in the subway when before we would’ve simply kept to ourselves.

As we embrace the inevitable Trump presidency, I hope all of us, regardless of our political affiliations, will be the ones we’ve been waiting for and boldly speak out against bigotry and social policies that unfairly target already marginalized groups.

I know I will.

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Be Brilliant At It

“The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.” -Norman Cousins

This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!
This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!

 Several years ago, a friend loaned me his copy of Words I Wish I Wrote, compiled by Robert Fulgham. As a young professional, not too far removed from my idealistic liberal arts college days, my mind was blown by the nuggets of wisdom contained within its pages. As a writer, I wished I’d written every single one of these words as the title suggested. The above quote from Norman Cousins completely resonated with me and I’ve thought about it a lot recently as I’ve returned to the teaching profession.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about what we let die inside ourselves in the past few months as I made the choice to get back into teaching and the career path from which I strayed so far. I was starting to feel like I’d let so many things inside me die as I struggled to figure out exactly what I wanted to do career-wise. When I left teaching five years ago, I never gave myself a timeline as to when I’d return, but deep down I always knew I’d find my way back in some capacity.

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-Charles Bukowski

However, in the last five or so months, I felt as though getting back into a career I felt passionate about was beyond my reach. Five years had flown by and my most recent stint as a full-time server made me feel as though I’d reached the point of no return.

Naturally, when you feel so far from your desired path, feelings of self-doubt creep in. How did I get here? How could I possibly have let all of the things that make me who I am just fly to the wayside? It was almost paralyzing to think about all of the potential I was wasting. Was it gone permanently? It had been so long since I’d worked in an academic setting I questioned my ability to secure a job in that field. Had I inadvertently closed the door to teaching forever?

IMG_0779_4To me, there are few things more tragic than wasted potential. I love the way John Updike beautifully paints this melancholy picture of wasted talent in his poem, “Ex-Basketball Player.” He tells the story of Flick Webb, the best basketball player in his town’s history who now pumps gas for “he had never learned a trade, he just sells gas/ Checks oil, and changes flats.” Remembered for his hands that “were like wild birds,” Flick spends his free days at the diner smoking cigars, playing pinball, and drinking “lemon phosphates.” Instead of playing in front of adoring fans, he faces only “applauding tiers/Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads” at the diner. There are several Flick Webbs from my hometown who haunt my memory with their athletic and artistic prowess that went unrealized.

Your potential, rekindled.
Your potential, rekindled.

On the bright side, there is always triumph to be found in tragedy. The good thing about potential is that it is only wasted if you allow yourself to waste it. It can be rekindled. Though I felt so far removed from where I’d begun, I applied for teaching jobs and eventually found my way back into the classroom. All of the things about myself I missed were still buried within me. It was just a matter of bringing those missing pieces to the surface.

On one of my last days of waiting tables, I explained to a group of guests that I was leaving to teach writing. An older gentleman at the table simply smiled and replied, “Be brilliant at it.” Not a congratulations, but a you have an obligation to yourself and to the world to be brilliant at whatever it is you decide to do. This gentleman’s simple words have inspired me far more than he probably ever imagined.

Be brilliant at it. 

I challenge all of you to focus on whatever it is that makes you alive and be brilliant at it. The world is depending on you.

The Dark Before the Dawn

“Remember,” they say, “that the darkest hour of all is the hour before day.”- Samuel Lover

The actual dark before dawn.
The actual dark before dawn.

It’s been far too long since I wrote my last blog post. I could give you a laundry list of excuses as to why this is the case, but I don’t believe in excuses. It looks like I’ve allowed myself to fall victim to the “busy trap” once again.

My last blog post was about letting loose and de-stressing, which is ironic, because at the time I wrote it, my stress levels were at an all time high. New York City was wearing me down and instead of attacking back with a can-do attitude, I let it run me over.

In my two-and-a-half years of living in New York City, I’ve found that city life is a constant give and take. Some days I feel the city takes more from me than it gives. Yes, it’s extremely expensive (I’m looking at you, income taxes). Yes, it feels overcrowded at times, bordering on extremely claustrophobic. Yes, people can be rude, not to mention pushy. At the same time, I love everything the city has to offer. Botanical gardens, surfing lessons, Broadway shows, art museums, French films, awkward poetry readings, garage band performances. You name it, New York City has it.

Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.
Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.

There’s so much to do in New York that it can be distracting. I still have to make money and even save it, too. It’s hard to save money when I’d rather be out reaping all that New York is sowing. I feel a constant struggle between making money and doing what I love. Part of the issue is that I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do professionally. Being unsure of what you want to do in a place like New York City where you have to be cutthroat to get what you want doesn’t work out so well. For too long, I’ve put what I love to do professionally on the back burner.

Until recently.

A few months ago, I made the decision to return to teaching. Teaching is where I’ve always belonged, I just didn’t realize that until I took a six-year hiatus. Last week, a few days before my 31st birthday, I accepted a classroom teaching position. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’ve finally turned a professional corner, or at least returned to the right road.

I’m excited to start a new chapter in New York, which is working in a field I so strongly believe in, in a position I’m passionate about. It will be challenging, stressful, and a whole slew of other adjectives, but I’m looking forward to being a position where I can give back to the community of which I’ve grown very fond.

Letting Loose

One of my favorite ways to unwind.
One of my favorite ways to unwind.

Did you know that it’s National Stress Awareness Month? Sometimes I feel like every month is National Stress Awareness Month as I am totally aware of the stress I’ve been feeling lately. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual stressors like paying taxes, thinking about what steps to take in my career, lack of sleep, and over-analyzing all of my life choices. No big deal!

There are countless books, blogs, talk shows, periodicals, and know-it-alls out there that provide a lifetime of information on the best ways to deal with stress. I’m sure your friendly health care professional has some great tips, too. However, when it comes to unwinding, I’m a huge proponent for doing whatever works for you. There’s no one cure-all way to de-stress! 

One of my favorite ways to unwind and alleviate stress is by partaking in water sports. I recently returned to the swimming pool after a long hiatus and it’s been life-changing. I spent 14 years as a competitive swimmer and I’ve missed that kind of intense exercise. You know how I feel about endorphins. I’ve also gotten into aquacycling and it’s quickly become another favorite way to really get those endorphins going. I’m addicted to the unique and intense workout, not to mention being in the water!

Central Park Boat Pond on a recent night. Doesn't even feel like the city!
Central Park Boat Pond on a recent night. Doesn’t even feel like the city!

Strolling through Central Park is another way I love to unwind. It’s so easy to get to and once I’m in the park, I don’t feel like I’m on a crowded island with 8.4 million other people. Instead, I feel like I’m on a solitary hike through the north woods of Wisconsin.

Of course, who can turn down a good giggle with friends? It’s free and it’s a great way to unwind. Laughter is the best medicine, after all. You get me on a good laughing roll and I can skip my abs workout for the day. 

A good dance party is also another one of my favorite ways to unwind. Especially since a dance party can happen anywhere, at any time. Just the other day I had an impromptu dance party while scrubbing my kitchen floors. Never felt better! All you need is music and the moves. 

Then again, what better way to unwind than by taking a vacation? I’ve never felt more relaxed than I did this last summer up north in Wisconsin. I love the vacation life. For my next trip, I’m thinking Europe. Or Vegas. Vegas, baby! I’d love to spend a weekend in my swimsuit laying poolside with a frozen drink at the Venetian working on my tan, then hitting the slots at night and maybe a party at the top of the Palms. You only live once, right? I’ve never been to Vegas and it’s a place everyone should experience at least once. Am I right?!

Tell me, what are your favorite ways to unwind?

Why The Internet Is Still Awesome

“They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.”Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, 2006.

“The Internet has its charms and its dangers.” – Peter the Librarian, to incoming freshman at Washington University, 2001.

“During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” – Senator Al Gore, 1999.

De de dee da do do do do do…

Since it first graced me with its presence in my home in 1996, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the Internet. In the beginning, I instantly fell in love with the dancing hamsters and the ability to find anything my heart desired on Netscape. Soon, I discovered that my crush was accessible 24/7 thanks to a little something called AOL Instant Messenger. My friends were also accessible over AIM and I’d spend many nights sneaking into the computer room to chat, waiting for that magical hum from the modem signaling to me that I was connected me to the internet/my dreams. Sometimes I’d throw a towel over the computer, hoping it would mute out that terribly loud sound and not wake up my parents.

Not only did the Internet connect me with my friends, but it allowed me to listen to all sorts of music I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Thanks to Napster and later Kazaa, I could listen to the greatest hits of the ’80s, ’90s, and today without having to spend all of my allowance on CDs. All that money I saved really came in handy in college when I had to pay for things like laundry and Ramen noodles.

Remember when it was “the” Facebook?

Toward the end of college, a little social network called Facebook arrived to the scene. It allowed you to connect with other kids on campus and see what they were up to. At first, it sort of felt like signing someone’s yearbook. You’d leave a little note on someone’s graffiti wall and go about your daily business. Soon, we were able to be friends with people on other campuses. Then, eventually the whole world was invited to join along with everything that has ever been invented. Ever. You could suddenly post pictures, tag people in statuses, check in with people. Lots of information available about everyone including your old boyfriend, his mother, your best friend from middle school.

Fun at first! A great way to keep in touch with friends old and new! But funny things started to pop up. Judy had a party last week? All my friends were there? I wonder why I wasn’t invited. Do they not like me? Staci is backstage at the Justin Timberlake concert again?! She really leads a more exciting life than I do. I need to get out more. Why won’t anyone like my status? Am I not funny? Or interesting?

My boyfriend, according to Buzzfeed.

Thanks Facebook, not only have you exacerbated my fear of missing out, you’ve turned me into a cyberstalker and you’ve wasted ALL of my time. What’s worse is that Buzzfeed has joined the party to take up even more of my time. As if Facebook hasn’t wasted enough time, now there’s an array of easy-to-read (read: mostly pictures), hilarious posts about everything under the sun from news stories to why going to the mall as a child is different from going as an adult. If that wasn’t enough, they now have quizzes. So even though I didn’t go grocery shopping as I’d planned, I do know which writer from history I should have a romantic fling with (Anton Chekov) and which U.S. President I most resemble (Barack Obama). Equally as important, I’d say.

Aside from wasting my time, how about the fact that the Internet has dumbed down our society as a whole?! The Internet is rewiring our brains! Nobody even reads anymore. In fact, if you’ve reached this far in my post, I commend you! Hashtag thank you. Hashtag see what I mean about the dumbing down of our society. Hashtag I hate people who talk in hashtags. Hashtag sorry not sorry.

Some days, I am so disgusted by how much the Internet has taken over my life. As I write this post, I’m staring at my iPad while my iPhone sits next to me. You know, in case someone likes my photo on Instagram, I can instantly respond and return the favor by liking one of their photos.

Just last month, when I hit the peak of my frustration with the Internet and thought about unplugging forever, I was kindly reminded why the Internet is still awesome. One day, upon arriving home from work, I received a small package in the mail. I wasn’t expecting anything so I didn’t have a clue as to what might be in the box.

The mug and the letter.
The mug and the letter.

After opening the box and sifting through the hundreds of styrofoam peanut-looking things, I found a commemorative royal wedding mug and a letter that was typed on a typewriter. It was from a Twitter friend, whom I’ve never met, but who knows how much I loved the royal wedding and everything Will and Kate-related. His mother, who lives in Minnesota, got the mug as a commemorative gift from People Magazine and was going to throw the mug away. Not wanting a good mug to go to waste, my Twitter pal thought of the only person he knew who might want such a thing–me.

The mug was accompanied by a letter, another one of my favorite things. There’s nothing better than receiving a letter in the mail. The thoughtful gift was an added bonus. This encounter happened because of our friendship over Twitter and it reminded me why the Internet is still awesome. It connects people.

Isn’t that why we go online in the first place?