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.

Steubenville

“It is tempting to point fingers while ignoring some of the root causes that are much more difficult to resolve. The extent that youngsters (and some adults) spend endless hours being entertained by violence says more about lack of supervision and control as well as disengagement. It isn’t that the entertainment media are so powerful, but that other institutions — family, school, religion and community — have grown weaker. Banning violent entertainment seems like an easy fix, but would do little to avert the next mass murder.” – James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University

It is strange that I would find the most enlightening comment about the Steubenville sexual assault case on the NY Daily News website (not exactly your top journalistic contender), and not in an article about the case but in a related link about violent video games and mass shootings.

Violence is pervasive in our culture, and there is no one root cause or easy fix, as Professor Fox says. It seems that our institutions have grown weaker, and it feels like little we do will stop the next assault and ensuing social media/entertainment news circus.

Fox is also right about disengagement. With everyone having a screen in their face all the time, whether or not that screen is showing us violent images, we are disconnected. And the screen enables us to post a horrific picture online without thinking twice. This is why all those institutions, as well as our human interactions, are weakened.

One of the tenets of human interaction is seeing the consequences of our behavior on the faces of those around us. We learn how to behave with others’ approval or disapproval. When we’re staring at a screen we don’t see the person on the other end. Or the one right in front of us, for that matter.

I’d been thinking about consequences before the Steubenville case blew up. Parents today are frantic to create a world for their children that is painless, and somewhere along the line some expert told us we can have that. We’ve bought into the notion that life can truly be a bowl of cherries, and for our kids that means no consequences.

In our effort to remove everything hard or painful from our kids’ lives, we’ve also eliminated their feelings. Their natural emotions and responses are tamped down and hidden. There is no appropriate place for letting them out. We don’t play in the neighborhood. We don’t ride our bikes unless it’s on paved trails. We barely even have recess anymore.

Kids rarely have interaction without adults telling them how to behave. They need to learn with their peers, outside of the protective bubble. They need to be wild, get in scrapes, and let their friends show them what’s acceptable. They need to kill a frog and feel how downright awful it is in the pit of their stomach. They need to learn this before the teen years, when we assume they’re ready and give them more freedom. And they should be doing it without social media at their fingertips 24/7.

I want to tell my sons to never ever do anything stupid, because it will be on every kid in your school’s cell phone the next morning. You will be damaged. But never making a mistake is impossible. We all do stupid things (thank God there were no pocket videorecorders around when I was young). I’m not sure how they’re going to make it through unscathed.

The atrocities that happened in Steubenville are not just about the sexual assault – they are about the overall treatment of another human being. Not just what was done to the victim’s body, but to her emotions and well-being. With all the disengagement that Professor Fox speaks of, young people are simply not learning how to treat each other.

I teach a brain development class in which I talk about the fact that the teenage brain is often incapable of seeing the consequences of actions, and exhibits deep denial behaviors (“We’re indestructible!”). How the moral centers in the brain have not yet developed even though the emotions and hormones are churning. That teens have an adult body with all the capabilities, but are still using a child’s brain. The U.S. Department of Justice tells the scary statistics: one-third of all crime is committed by children under the age of 18.

Still, one would hope that we’ve taught our kids well enough to know when to draw the line. We hope they’ll make good choices, and the work we’ve put into that will show when it counts. But alcohol plus a bunch of kids standing around cheering always leads to one hell of a dangerous situation.

Kids need consequences from adults and each other. They need to know that everything they do isn’t the greatest thing ever to hit the planet. It’s why I spend so much of my energy railing against the cult of sports. I’ve seen eleven-year-old boys being praised to the sky because they ran down a field with a ball. From that moment on, that boy knows he has every adult in the room wrapped around his finger. And if that’s true, what can he get away with among his peers?

Steubenville can and will happen again – precisely because there are cameras in every person’s pocket. While the images were used in a horrifying way to humiliate one young girl, they’ve also shed light on the type of activity that kids are participating in. The same images also led to the consequences that these kids so desperately deserve, and I applaud the local authorities for taking action and continuing their investigation.

As I write this, there are three boys wrestling rather violently in my play room. I’m not stopping them. They don’t want me to. Part of this play is learning limits to how far you can go with someone else’s body. When they hurt each other, they stop and check if the hurt person is OK. Someone said, “Time out,” and the others immediately let him go sit down.

I said, “I will let you continue this if timeout is sacred,” and they all accepted that rule without me even having to explain any further. They want to push the limits, but they also want to know the rules. If everyone is safe, they know that individually they’re safe too.

I hope and pray that as the boys in my playroom venture out into the teen years, where I can’t be there to supervise, that they will remember the lessons of these wrestling matches. And the lessons they see me working on from day one in my profession: We don’t put our hands on people in a harmful way. We don’t take things from them. We don’t hurt people’s bodies. No one is allowed to do these things to anyone else. It is unacceptable. And there will be consequences.

What to Do When Sports Get Ugly

“You suck.” – Nine-year-old boy at soccer game

Wow. Yes, believe it or not, this was uttered after our last game by a kid on the winning team to someone on my son’s team. We only lost by one goal, and stayed right with them. If you didn’t count the goal where they tackled our keeper, we would’ve tied. Oh and by the way, they don’t keep score at this level. But somehow we suck.

I have learned that as a sports parent there are many games where all you can do is set a good example. It can take a serious effort to resist getting dragged down by the ugliness that’s happening around you. Many times you have to head home after the game trying to find the positive lesson for your kids.

So, like in the case of this game, a lot of those lessons are about rising above. This kind of flat-out bullying shouldn’t be accepted anywhere, but it kills me how easily people shrug it off on the playing field. It’s just part of the game!

I’m not naive, I know what kind of ugly exists out there in the world. But I’ve worked hard to put some distance between it and myself. I moved to the area I live in because we’re a happy, mellow community. I work with infants, toddlers and preschoolers. I am, as my best friend likes to say, a marshmallow.

So I really have a hard time when I see such bold aggression. I actually have a physical response – it’s probably fight or flight. I get shaky and upset when I see parents and coaches screaming their kids into submission and berating referees and anyone else in the near vicinity.

Then the kids behave the same way because that’s the example that’s being set: This is how we act when we’re playing sports. It’s ok to be a complete animal, because after the game’s over (and we’ve danced in the blood of our enemies) we can all pat each other on the back and say, “Good game.” No hard feelings. We left it all on the field.

Sometimes I think I’m just a sore loser. But I don’t mind losing to a team that plays fair. And I have to think I’m a better sport than the “You suck” kid. I do try not to write them off. I know they’re a product of their environment.

Until now I’ve been unable to think of a way to just watch the game, not get involved in the atmosphere, and enjoy seeing my kids play a sport they really love. So I googled “parenting and sports” looking for some ideas. There were a couple of good articles, like this one, in which coaching expert Bruce Brown says you should “Let your child bring the game to you if they want to.”

I love this idea. Last year we banned re-hashing the game during the ride home in the car, and it was genius. But at some point either my husband or I couldn’t resist the urge to talk about it and give our two cents. I have to accept that when the game’s over, my son might not want to talk about it at all, and that’s OK. It’s not my job (or what they want) to dissect the game, good or bad.

Many of the other articles I found were a mix of “Don’t over-do it with youth sports,” followed by “How to maximize your child’s athletic potential.” The usual bag of mixed messages. We give a lot of lip service to fairness, but secretly we know you’re just in it to get your kid into the pros.

That’s not what my kids want out of sports (which is probably why they aren’t out there trying to dominate everyone). They love the exercise, the challenge, and being with their friends. I have a feeling that many of their teammates feel the same way.

So all I can do is keep taking deep breaths and teaching my sons how to deal with idiots. The best advice I found was that when the game is over, they just want Mom. And being my best Mom means shutting my mouth and listening to what they have to say. Sometimes it means letting them be quiet and resisting the urge to invade their privacy. And no matter what, always be on their side.

A footnote to this post: In response to reading it, a friend of mine sent me a link to this video, which has been making the rounds this weekend. I don’t want to spoil it so please just watch – it’s well worth the three minutes. Everyone in that gym was a better person for what they saw. If only…