Addiction is a Disease. Period.

In the last year we’ve lost three of the greatest actors of our time: James Gandolfini. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robin Williams. Only after they died did we learn the true depth of their suffering.

After Gandolfini’s passing you didn’t hear as much anger or blame in the response. People were just sad. Because his compulsion was overindulgence – we can all relate to that. He was a man of big passions, he loved food, he loved cigars. While worrisome (and ultimately fatal), this type of behavior can even be admired in a man of his stature – he deserved to put his feet up and enjoy himself after all his hard work. People weren’t angry at him.

In the cases of Hoffman and Williams, I don’t have to discuss how visceral and inappropriate the response has been. And I probably don’t have to spell out that the difference is because their problems were addiction and depression. It is widely known that if a person had cancer we’d all be rallying to support them and their family, bringing food, making hospital visits, starting funds, holding charity baseball games, leaving coffee cans around town for donations. But when they have the disease of depression, or alcoholism, and a host of others I’m forgetting, we shun them. We blame the sick person.

Ironically, while looking for answers to Williams’ death, I found comfort (or at least a laugh) in Chris Rock’s retweet of an Onion story about how assigning blame is now the fastest human reflex. I think when we’re feeling grief over a suicide or an overdose, we blame the person because we are hurting and it’s their fault. Then it becomes very easy not to see the victim’s hurt.

When I first studied alcoholism, I learned that anyone can suffer from addiction. And many people in your daily life are actively struggling with it. It is very easy to put on a mask of normality and continue about your business. You can rise to the highest position in your career and go on for years in an active drugs and alcohol situation without anyone really suspecting what’s going on. A “drunk” is not just the guy living in the gutter.

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

In elementary school we learn (well we used to learn, I don’t know if it lives up to common core standards nowadays) that you have several aspects to your “self” – mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. We were told that in order to have a happy life, we should work to keep all these areas healthy. My husband and I are teaching our kids that when your body is sick, you go to the doctor. When your mind is sick, you go to the therapist. There is no shame in this. It’s common sense. Our society needs to embrace this ideology and stop shunning normal human responses to stress. Because we’ve got more stress than ever nowadays.

Throughout my life I’ve loved people who suffered from mental illness. I’ve loved people who suffered from depression. I’ve loved people who suffered from addiction. Those people deserve no less respect than the ones stricken with other more socially acceptable diseases. They crave compassion just as any other sick, hurting person does, and it is not their fault that they are sick.

Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes you have no idea what they suffer. There but for the grace of God go I. In these times of loss no one has the right to cast judgment, or call someone a coward, or say how could they not get help. These men were fighting battles their whole lives, as any addict does. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they don’t.

I don't have his egg anymore :(

I don’t have his egg anymore 😦

Mr. Williams’ death hit me hard. The odd thing is several of my friends said they thought of me when they heard the news – I don’t know why, except that I’ve obviously loved him as so many other people have throughout the years (or maybe it was my Mork from Ork action figure). People say he had everything, and how could this happen. I think we need to flip that around and see the other side: the fact that he was able to get up, get out of bed, get to work, get on stage, get in front of people – everything that he gave in spite of what he was dealing with is nothing short of a miracle. We should simply be grateful.

Trophy Kids Indeed

Oh. Something tells me I’m gonna love this.

Or maybe not so much love, but watch helplessly, like a car crash. These parents must have known they were being filmed. Did they tone it down? Or tone it up?

The clip is from the new HBO Sports documentary “State of Play: Trophy Kids” by the actor and director Peter Berg, who studies the insanity of parents who push their kids too hard in sports. Just looking at this short clip shows the ridiculous lengths people will go to, including teenagers with personal trainers and parents making their kids cry on purpose to “toughen her up.” I can’t imagine a parent seeing their child break down in tears, specifically caused by them, and not feel heartbroken.

I’m amused by the mother who, blubbering through her own tears, says “What if I didn’t do everything I could to help them realize their dreams?” Here Berg gets right to the heart of crazy sports parents: it’s 100%, completely and totally vicarious. It is rarely, if ever, the kid’s dream.

What my parents dreamed for themselves is certainly not what I dreamed for myself, as is the same for my kids. Luckily my parents realized that pretty early and let me find my own way. They supported the choices I made for the activities I wanted to do. I hope to be able to do the same for my kids, and so far I think I’ve done an OK job.

In fact, it makes my skin crawl when people say I’m a soccer mom. Not just the stereotypical van-driving, coffee-drinking, hair-in-a-ponytail and sweats on because I ran out the door at 8AM on a Saturday to get to my kid’s game mom. Because, yeah, that is me. But I think of the stereotypical “soccer mom” as the woman in the movie.

I am a soccer mom in that my kids play soccer. They’re good at it, and they love it, and for those reasons I love watching them play. But if I ever became that woman, or anyone thought of me as her, I think I would die of embarrassment.

Not a soccer mom. But this is the ornament the kids got me for Christmas.

Not a soccer mom. But this is the ornament the kids got me for Christmas.

What it takes to become a professional athlete is a very unique and very rare combination of ability, skills, motivation, and desire. One can only be born with this set of attributes, and no parent can give them to their child just because they want them to succeed. The freak success stories of people like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters make everyone believe they can turn their kids into stars. But those people happened to have the one-in-a-million lightning bolt combination to make it.

It pains me to see the looks on the faces of the kids in that video. If someone else made those kids look that way, wouldn’t the parents rush to their defense? They are so hurt, ashamed, embarrassed – and any parent who thinks they can encourage their child to do better in sports using those tactics is just wrong.

Here’s a new rule. Instead of forcing your kids to do the sports you think they should do, make sure they do at least one thing. Let them pick it out. It doesn’t have to be sports. When my son wanted to quit basketball it tore us up. But he found something else he loves and begs to go whenever we have a free moment. We had to let him find it himself and now we support him in this new path. Who knows how far this activity will take him? It could be something he does his whole life, and his love for it will be shared with others who love it.

I doubt very much that the parents in that video would take this advice. They may be shocked when their kids end up resenting them and turning to all kinds of bad behavior because they’re so stressed. They may be shocked when the principal calls them in to say their kid is a bully (I haven’t even explored that avenue but where do you think they come from?). I hope to get a chance to watch it and see if anyone changes their ways, or what their response is after the video goes public. This is compelling and important work, and I thank Peter Berg for having the guts to make it.

Tween Halloween

Every year my kids get older I learn something new. Halloween was upon us (literally – I didn’t even have candy until 6:00 when my husband got home from work) and they were still undecided about trick-or-treating.

I always try to stand back and take their cues, letting them make their own decisions about whether or not things are cool anymore. Of course Younger, the sugar addict, loves candy so much that he would trick-or-treat by candlelight even after a freak snowstorm took out all the power (this really happened).

Camera360_2013_10_31_090201 Older decided that maybe this was the year to stop going out, but it was a perfect excuse for a party. He coerced a bunch of other on-the-fence boys to come over for “a hangout.” It was rainy and dismal most of the day and I told him it would be OK to stay here if no one felt like going out in it.

And minutes after they all got here, they decided they really needed to go out and get bags full of candy. A couple didn’t even have costumes (including my own) so we dragged out the bag from the past few years and they let it rip, everyone taking bits and pieces. We even used one complete costume, worn tightly, as it was a few sizes too small (adds to the spookiness).

Halloween has always been one of my favorite nights to be in my neighborhood. There’s usually a party feel, people are out on their porches or even having bonfires in the yard. It truly is the last goodbye to warm weather and outdoor life before the real cold sets in.

I’ve met friends and even clients on Halloween. There are old folks just thrilled to have people to talk to. One lady who has to be pushing 90 is out every year under a knitted blanket. Last year she told me, “I wasn’t here last year because I had a broken hip. But I’m back now! And I even got my decorations up.” I don’t even know her, but when I see her on Halloween we chat like old friends.

There are some who love to play along and talk to or mess with the kids. Others are maybe only giving out the candy from a sense of duty and not loving it so much. But it always makes me feel good to know that the people who occupy so many of the houses around me, alot of whom I don’t really know, are in general pretty cool.

The crew of nine boys that we had was wild. Luckily a few parents volunteered to come along and we trailed them, making sure no one got sucked into another group or actually ran in front of a car. They tend to forget they’re on a street in the dark, in a pack, with costumed kids taking over the neighborhood.

They were excited. They were together. They had planned their own party, made it happen, and were out for candy. A few inappropriate words were spoken. Bodies ran and crashed and yelled. A few Halloween decorations were violated (not destroyed). We kept them in check until eventually they settled down to a dull roar.

But as always, in the back of my mind, I could see how this kind of behavior can drive people nuts, and why they would resent the big kids on Halloween. I wanted to defend our boys. To tell people that when a bunch of tweeners come to your door, half-dressed in weird costumes, and they may or may not be a little mouthy, don’t write them off.

They’re just young kids in a really difficult part of their lives, doing the best they can to try and fit in. They want to keep one foot in childhood as they face the stress of growing up and looking cool in front of a crowd of potential bullies. They’re fighting their way through the hardest years, so just give them some chocolate to help ease the pain.

When we got back to the house the boys were tired and polite. They wanted drinks and asked if it would be OK if they had some ice. When soda was spilled Older cleaned it up all by himself. They inspected their loot and left candy wrappers all around.

I looked at my thrown-together party with one sad string of skeleton lights, an untouched bowl of apples, the ripped open bag of costumes, wet socks and dirty pillowcases everywhere, and laughed at the insanity of my life right now.

The next day some of the parents told me how much fun their kid had had. More than one said they were grateful that Older had convinced them to go out because otherwise they wouldn’t have. This made me prouder than anything. I suddenly forgot how tired I was and how much cleaning I had to do. This is my life now: completely unplanned, surrounded by a dirty, overcrowded mess of happy, under-costumed kids. And I couldn’t be happier.

A Mother’s Fear and Faith

I find myself to be struck dumb when catastrophes happen. It’s hard for me to write about the little details of parenthood and life with kids, and deal with my little complaints, and make all the nonsense seem silly and cute, when I know there are 12,000 people in Oklahoma whose homes just got wiped off the map.

And there are too many catastrophes happening lately, so I find that I can’t write very much. Last week I was focused on how to protect our kids from all the dangers that lurk out there. I decided to give up years of beating myself up for being too worried, and accept that I’m a mother. I’m supposed to be worried. And I’m pretty sure it’s a biological imperative, so I should just stop fighting it.

But the new challenge I have set for myself is to find a way to manage the worry and allow my children their freedom. I have to accept that all of life is a risk. And as Baz Luhrmann tells us in the logo for his production company, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” (We saw Gatsby this weekend, it was decent. Thanks for the advice, Baz.)

I don’t want to be fearful. I want to be that adventuresome person climbing the rock cliffs like we did in Utah over spring break. I want to give my kids all the challenges and freedom they need to grow into healthy adults and have faith that they will be alright. Why is it that we can be so unafraid in the face of real falling-off-a-cliff danger, but the walk to school feels scarier than falling off a cliff?

Usually when I’m in this mode of worry and doubt, comfort comes when I least expect it. I was reading the newspaper (a prime source of disaster stress) and there was an article about our police department hiring a new chaplain to provide counseling for both police and the families involved with incidents.

When asked about the stresses of his job, and dealing with so many people in trauma and crisis, he responded, “It’s been a blessing for me to get this experience over the years and to be able to respond to these horrific events to help people get through it and move on. Because we can’t protect ourselves from all these things, we just have to help each other get through it.”

I was hit by the honesty, strength – and yes, acceptance – in this quote, and it stayed with me. Things are going to happen in my kids’ lives. I can’t predict them or prevent them. I can’t be there for everything and there are things they won’t want me there for. But I can always help them through. Whenever my sons get worried we tell them, “There are always people who will help you.” Today my challenge is to focus on this aspect of the good in people and let go of the fear.

Protecting Our Children

For years I’ve wrestled with how protective I should be of my children. This has been a particularly bad news week for a mom who worries. When it feels like there’s terrible news everywhere I look, it’s usually time to take another news blackout. Or just continue to rely on Jon Stewart to sort it out for me.

But the question remains, how do you protect your children from random violence, and how do you explain it to them when they get old enough to understand?

The wonderful news of three women being released from their captivity in Ohio was nothing but a triumph. At the same time, I can’t stop wrestling with the chilling questions this event leaves in its wake. How many more are there? What happens to missing children? How well do we know our neighbors?

A new hero emerged from the publicity around this news. It was Elizabeth Smart, whose story I was transfixed by years ago, but I had thought faded into a much-deserved quiet life. No, in fact she’s out there advocating and has unbelievably brilliant things to say. I am still transfixed by her.

In this clip she describes a safety program for kids called radKIDS (Resisting Aggression Defensively). The program is not just for preventing abduction but also addresses bullying, molesting, and child abuse. Even if parents don’t want to think about this topic, I cannot imagine a better way to give our kids tools they need to defend themselves.

I knew one child care provider who did a safety training with her kids. She had them sit in a circle and – after warning her neighbors what she was up to – would grab each child and have them scream for their lives. I was torn about this practice. My first reaction was, how gruesome, and aren’t they scared? Her response was, “They should be.”

I hate it. I hate that we have to raise children in a world like this but it’s just reality. And here’s the interesting part. She said the kids loved it, and they felt empowered and happy when the training was over. Well, what kid doesn’t love the chance to scream as loud and long as they possibly can?

But the training made them feel like they had strength. And one of the things Elizabeth Smart said was that she’d never said no to an adult. We need to teach our kids that they damn well can say no to anyone, anytime.

One of my sons took a year of tae kwon do and gained immensely from it in a variety of ways. While I think it would help him if God forbid he was ever attacked, his learning was beyond the self-defense capabilities. It was about having strength and confidence in yourself, and that’s what our kids need in any situation, on a daily basis. (Especially in middle school.)

This is about turning fear into empowerment. For parents, it means we must stop being in denial and simply have direct conversations with our kids. It is said that we should take this talk as seriously, and have it as often, as we talk to our kids about sex and drugs. But at an even younger age. And we should not just give dire warnings of “Look out for bad people,” but instead ask, “What would you do in this situation?” And then, here’s what you do: flip out as if your life depended on it.

Ironically, at at time in their lives when people tend to be incredibly overprotective of children, I give the toddlers and preschoolers in my care immense freedom. Our climbers are really climbers – with kids not just using the steps but sitting on top of them yelling, “Mommy! Look at me!”

It makes everybody nervous but I say, let them explore while they still can. I think about the freedom my boys don’t get and the skills they may not be learning from being simply alone in the world and figuring it out.

I’ve bemoaned this with many parents over the years. We all spent hours alone, riding bikes or wandering in the woods, or running through the neighborhood with our crew, away from the prying eyes of our parents. This way of life doesn’t exist anymore and I worry about what my kids are missing out on.

At the same time, we do awesome things with them. We challenge them in different ways, be it soccer games or hikes where they can climb five stories up on rock walls. I have to come to a point where I realize that it’s OK to be as protective as I want to be. I’m done living with the stress of somehow failing to give them enough freedom.

In the end, every time I send them out the door, they will go with my prayers for their safety and blind hope and faith for the best. They will only be armed with whatever skills I’ve given them to be smart and protect themselves. This is one place where I cannot fail.